(Dominic Cavendish’s article appeared in the Telegraph, 4/3.)
Believe what you were told about Untold Stories, the double bill of Alan Bennett playlets derived from his 2005 collection of diaries, recollections and essays. Unlike the over-praised People, which this pairing joined in repertoire at the National before leaping across the Thames in its own right, here’s an evening of invigorating, unadulterated Bennettian wit and wisdom: not a too-tart response to the grasping way things are in England today, but a reflection on the gentle way things were – and in summoning childhood and youth long past, it bids a poignant adieu to a vanished country.
Playing the author with sublime assurance once more is Alex Jennings. At first, in Hymn, you marvel merely at the impersonation. With fogeyish attire, blond hair and scholarly specs – a cross between schoolboy and schoolmaster – the actor almost looks the spitting image of his subject. You admire the Leeds accent and the mimicked mannerisms – the stooped gait, the gauche, hands-in-pockets delivery – but through a strange alchemy, this ceases to be an affectionate tribute act and it’s as if you’re in the presence of the man himself.
In the first half, with a string quartet accompanying and interrupting the flow of words with George Fenton’s glorious, elegiac score, you feel reverberating on the bone the remembered disappointment of Bennett’s failure to master the violin, as his father did, in a household that took its measure from the music of wireless, church and concert hall. Thanks to sensitive lighting, too, in Nadia Fall’s production, which utilises the draped dust-sheeting design of People, it’s as if your lungs are filled with the musty air of old churches where, fighting easy nostalgia and sentiment, Bennett shivers at the memory of the First World War dead.