Review: Alan Bennett's Untold Stories, West Yorkshire Playhouse

(7193275)

(7193275)

First published in News

Untold Stories,

West Yorkshire Playhouse

THE stage is stark and reminiscent of a giant sauna with its bare wooden slatted walls and simple wooden chairs/table. A string quartet populate one side, playing George Fenton’s accompanying score, while Reece Dinsdale as Bennett prepares for a “reading” of Hymn, in what is now obviously a recording studio.

Reminiscing about his father’s violin days, playing Bennett Dinsdale gives a dry delivery that’s lightly comic. He describes his father making herbal beer and his mum billing it as "your dad taking on Tetley’s". He enlivens his performance by re-enacting conversations with his father, singing as his father would have and name-dropping notable Leeds musicians who formed part of his Leeds Town Hall musical education.

Meanwhile, the four piece complement his narrative by mimicking his early attempts to play violin, aged 10. In structure Hymn is pleasingly circular, returning to the theme of hymns that first has Bennett reminiscing about his father. It is the briefer of Bennett’s Untold Stories but no less moving than the meatier Cocktail Sticks that follows and already Bennett’s humble modesty shines through in Dinsdale’s performance.

Returning from the interval the set is fuller, representing different parts of the Bennett family home with no wall divides and spot-lights switching the action between “rooms”. Here, Dinsdale begins by describing a visit to Bennett’s parents in Weston-Super-Mare and his mother being in the early stages of dementia. The script is full of well-observed family memories strung together by Bennett junior’s preoccupation with wishing he’d had a more traumatic upbringing for writing purposes, instead of having parents who valued being “ordinary”, resulting in him becoming “an adult with no baggage".

Bennett casts himself as a self-aware narrator who occasionally breaks the fourth wall by injecting humour into otherwise sad moments: "This is my father who had died a few years previously…we can talk about it now [he’s] dead". Memories range from him, aged 10, being touched on the leg by a man in a cinema to his ex-butcher father stinking out the family home making dripping, Bennett's early aspirations to be a vicar and his nightly patrols to meet men. Many are selected for humour, highlighting his parents’ particular idiosyncrasies and social eccentricities - his mother using olive oil for softening ear wax, his father’s inability to understand food trends ("Avocado and prawns in cocktails - well, how do you drink that?")…

As mum and dad, Marjorie Yates and John Arthur ably support Dinsdale, balancing pathos with humour in their small everyday exchanges as they tackle subjects such as memory loss and depression. Extra cast play peripheral characters and additional props are wheeled on to move the action away from the family home.

As is trademark of Bennett, Untold Stories is full of clever word play and amusing links between scenes, managing to even make his mother's gradual loss of speech a light-hearted affair. Both mini-plays boast tight circular structures and act as a celebration of bygone times and local literary/historical figures like J.B.Priestley. Poignant and strangely calming to watch, Untold Stories is faultless in delivery with an endearing and moving but fittingly comical conclusion.

Untold Stories shows at The West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday.

by Leo Owen

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