Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories Staged in Leeds

It is not difficult to explain why Alan Bennett has achieved such popularity with his autobiographical writings. The very ordinariness of his humble background and the tensions that created within him as he explored the larger world of culture and intellect strikes a chord for many of us. Add to that his gift for capturing and communicating, with wry humour, the life and language of the West Riding and success in ensured. However, the double bill of Hymn and Cocktail Sticks presented at the West Yorkshire Playhouse under the title Untold Stories made me question how effectively his autobiographical prose can be translated to the stage.

Hymn is a monologue of reminiscences of Bennett’s school days accompanied by music played by a string quartet. It did not work. There was not enough text;  and it was unclear how it related to the music which was, in any event, indifferently played. More ambitiously , Cocktail Sticks is a dramatisation of episodes from Untold Stories with a heavy focus on Mam and Dad. The last ten minutes or so were poignant as Mam develops dementia and the warmth of Bennett’s attachment to her comes across without sentimentality or overstatement. But I did resist much of the rest of the piece. The rounded picture of family life communicated in the prose version becomes here too much of a caricature and this was not helped by the actors making it all too obvious when a funny line was on its way. Also I was left  with an uneasy feeling that Bennett had made a very marketable product of his parents and their foibles and that this was somehow undignified.