Untold Stories was a hasty project for Alan Bennett: started in 2005 when he believed he was dying of cancer and wanted to get down some confessional and anecdotal biography he believed would be published posthumously. That his cancer went into remission is a cause for national celebration, although the two stories chosen for National Theatre staging may not best serve his memoir.
The curtain-raiser Hymn, a gently reflective monologue on being taught the violin aged 10 by his impatient father, is soporifically directed by Nadia Fall and the equivalent of watching the radio: it feels so like an antique BBC Home Service broadcast you can almost hear the crackle of the valves. Nicholas Hytner takes the reins for the main event after the interval, Cocktail Sticks, which starts with Bennett emptying the kitchen cupboards after his parents’ death and musing on cochineal, BeRo flour, sauce bottles and a drum of toothpicks which were to chart his mother’s apprehensive attempts to become middle-class and socialise with finger food.
This at least is enlivened by a brisker pace and two winning performances by Jeff Rawle and Gabrielle Lloyd as the “too ordinary” parents that Bennett complains left him bereft of a literary wellspring of deprivation to draw from in his writing. It’s a somewhat confected reinvention, for which Bennett is perhaps too frequently guilty: he often claims allegiance to Camden Town as though it were a bit of grit-in-your-eye North London spiritually close to his native Leeds, whereas the reality is he lives in a rather fine house in leaf- and celebrity-strewn Primrose Hill.
It’s cosy and entertaining, but perhaps the aphorisms are too manicured, and the scenes too sustaining of the Yorkshire stereotype. There are more illuminating and dramatic episodes in the original book, including a horrific chapter where Bennett and his partner were beaten up by homophobic thugs on holiday in Italy, and Bennett’s headwounds, from which he almost died, were stitched by an unsympathetic doctor without anaesthetic.
When you can recognise an arc of development in Bennett’s later work – even the flawed People charts new ground – it seems overly safe to revisit and reinforce the cuddly sarcasm of his Oxford-educated adult view of Yorkshire adolescence and the portrait of his parents he also painted in Enjoy back in 1980. What stops it descending into a television sketch, though, is Alex Jennings’s masterful impression of Bennett: the stooped, deprecating mannerisms, the modulated clergyman tones and the bloodhound-mournful expression are all captured to perfection. It really IS Alan Bennett on stage.
It’s just not the whole of Alan Bennett.
Untold Stories continues at the Duchess Theatre until 15 June. Tickets from the National Theatre website, £12-£59.50. Here's a just-out-of-the-show AudioBoo by @johnnyfoxlondon and @paulinlondon. JohnnyFox received tickets from AKA PR.