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Watermill Theatre - Untold Stories

5th May to 11th June 2016.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

The two short plays from Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories are very different in format, but both are autobiographical accounts of his life with his parents in Yorkshire.

The first, Hymn, has a simple setting with an armchair – and a string quartet (Harry Napier, John Kane, Richard Gibson and Kate Robson-Stuart). Bennett (Roger Ringrose) sits in the chair and reminisces about his early life, illustrated by George Fenton’s haunting music. Like most of his generation, Bennett sang hymns every day in school assembly and Fenton’s arrangement of The God of Love My Shepherd Is led us into this. Bennett’s love for music was fuelled by his weekly visits to Leeds to hear the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, but his own attempts at playing the violin were less successful. His father was a keen violinist but Bennett didn’t have the aptitude and felt he was a disappointment to his father.

For the second play, Cocktail Sticks, the set opened out to represent various parts of the Bennett house, all painted in a drab eau-de-nil. The title comes from Bennett’s clearing out of a kitchen cupboard and finding a tube of cocktail sticks, recalling his mother’s fascination with the new-fangled (for Yorkshire, at any rate) cocktails and her unfulfilled desire to have a cocktail party.

The play skips through the main parts of Bennett’s life which related to his parents, an unassuming lower-middle-class couple. His relationship with his butcher Dad (Richard Gibson) was difficult at times but there was more affection between him and Mam (Lucy Tregear). Perhaps surprisingly for the period, Mam and Dad didn’t seem to have any problems with his homosexuality.

At one point, Bennett says, “I wish I’d had a harder time”, referring to his childhood, although there was always the feeling that he and his parents didn’t really fit in with the rest of society. The high point of the family relationship was at the end of his period of National Service, where he and his parents seemed happiest. That was followed by Oxford, where he felt embarrassed by his parents, and then his successes with Beyond the Fringe and on Broadway. Despite mingling with A-list celebs, he still felt an outsider (“What am I doing here?”).

The end of the play charts Mam’s decline with depression and dementia, and his own experiences with chemotherapy for cancer. Written about this time, in Untold Stories he was anticipating his death, but the play ends with the exhortation “Take heart”.

Roger Ringrose captured the speech and mannerisms of Bennett well. And with a lot of it being monologue, what a huge part to learn! He skilfully underplayed Bennett’s sardonic, dry humour in a performance that was both funny and moving. The observational humour in Bennett’s work comes to the fore in this production, and his influence on comedians such as Victoria Wood is clear.

Richard Gibson and Lucy Tregear made a diffident but happy couple, rather bemused by Alan’s success. They brought out well Dad’s introversion and Mam’s yearning to be accepted one step up the social ladder.

Harry Napier and Kate Robson-Stuart added to the humour in an assortment of other roles.

I loved this production. It’s a fascinating, gripping trawl through Bennett’s home life with an outstanding performance from Roger Ringrose.


Review from The Telegraph.

Three stars
What a difference a Jennings can make. I hate to sound mean about Roger Ringrose, who plays Alan Bennett in this regional revival of the latter’s double-bill of memoir pieces, first seen at the National at the end of 2012.

But when you’ve seen Alex Jennings inhabit the part of the doleful Yorkshireman – not only on stage in that triumphant premiere but also, recently, on screen in The Lady in The Van – it’s hard not to feel that there are A teams and B teams of Bennettian impersonation, and into the latter camp Ringrose decidedly falls.

Should director Tom Attenborough have ordered a lookalike wig for the actor? One of the 82-year-old author’s enviable distinguishing features is his relatively opulent head of hair, which, with his glasses, gives him the residual look of a school-boy. Ringrose is appropriately blond but on the thinning side.

However, I’m not sure his physical appearance explains the slightly deflating feeling you get that you’re watching a “stand-in”, Bennett at one far remove.

The fusty attire – tie, v-neck jumper, jacket – is present and correct, but for all the mild-mannered thoughtfulness Ringrose brings to the lines, we’re seldom treated to the richness of nuance Jennings achieved, the rueful catch of an off-hand aside, the pensive clasping of hand to face, the scrutinising look Bennett has, as though the world were a painting he’s still fathoming, still baffled by.

All the same, the writing is so good that the evening casts a spell, its subject, wryly and tenderly treated, being that inaccessible country ‘yesterday’. In the short first half, with beautiful accompaniment by an on-stage quartet (score by George Fenton), Bennett reflects on the hymns and classical sounds of his youth, his dexterous fiddler of a father a figure of unreciprocated awe.

The second piece, Cocktail Sticks, continues to mine the theme of vague unfulfilment, this time Bennett (in dialogue with fictionalised versions of his Mam and Dad, splendidly embodied by Lucy Tregear and Richard Gibson) comically bemoaning the lack of a ‘proper childhood’ of a sort that would equip him as a writer with the right kind of trauma.

“Cocktail sticks” come to symbolise the social fashions his Mam never fully grasped (everything eventually slipping from her as dementia takes hold) and the way, on pained reflection, that it’s the little, everyday things parents give you that stay with you long after they’re gone. Sniff.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Double-bill of memoirs

Alan Bennett says it how it is at The Watermill

Untold Stories: Hymn & Cocktail Sticks, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, June 11

Perhaps it has to do with being a northerner which makes people such as Alan Bennett and the late Victoria Wood so entertaining. They see themselves – and us – as we are; no flannel, no rubbish, just straight talking about little lives. We relate to it and love it.

I was not expecting the strong skein of music running through these reflections on childhood by master of the monologue, Alan Bennett. In Hymn, Bennett (an entirely believable performance by Roger Ringrose) recalls going to weekly concerts sitting in cheap seats at the back of the double basses and comparing it to being behind the elephant at the circus. Listening to the music taught him there must be drudgery behind "blind artistry" to succeed.

In Hymn, of course, the musicians do succeed and the ensemble, with Harry Napier (cello), John Kane (viola) and the violins of Richard Gibson and Kate Robson-Stuart, play George Fenton's music magnificently. This intricate weaving of classical and hymn tunes leads Bennett's recollections, which include his father trying in vain to teach him to follow in his footsteps and play the violin.

In Cocktail Sticks, we meet Bennett's parents, unsociable Dad (Richard Gibson) and his Mam (Lucy Tregear). It begins when, with both parents dead, Bennett must clear out cupboards in which repose such treasures as "two glace cherries and a blackened bottle of cochineal".

The clock turns back, his dad waits outside ladies' lavatories, holding his wife's handbag – "an office of love" – and Bennett bemoans his uninteresting childhood ("we took you to Morecambe" says Mam). The family attend church, but never drive less the Eucharist should make his Dad incapable. Tregear creates a vivid and moving picture of the woman who yearns for social functions, though she knows few people and refuses to admit she has depression.

Bennett takes us through adulthood, Beyond the Fringe – his mum thinks it has to do with his hair – and his success on Broadway – till finally he is ill in bed with his own cocktail – of drugs.

With less music in this second play, there are still times when it sets an atmosphere which alternates between laugh-aloud humour and poignancy. Director Tom Attenborough's superb cast make this rather different sort of evening one which is particularly enjoyable.


There is a review from The Stage ("a well-calibrated ensemble piece" 4 stars).