Duchess Theatre, London

Theatre review: Untold Stories - Mama, you been on my mind

4.00

Music and Mother are preoccupations of the National's staging of Alan Bennett's memoirs

Is this going to turn into Alan Bennett: The Musical? That's what you wonder, watching Untold Stories, a double bill of Bennett's dramatised memoirs with Alex Jennings as the playwright, accompanied by an on-stage string quartet.

At last week's West End press night I thought the woman seated behind me was breaking into song, but she was just crying "Awww" repeatedly, as if she wanted to chuck Jennings under the chin. Maybe this hit show's transfer from the NT has upped the risk of sentimentalisation. Personally, I like to imagine that Bennett growls whenever he's petted as a "national treasure".

Nonetheless, he is a much-loved figure, and Jennings's impersonation is a delight – almost unnervingly spot-on. Bespectacled, with short back and sides, he captures Bennett's lilting and slightly bunged-up intonation without caricaturing. He leans forward fractionally at the ankles, flaps a hand inside his tweedy jacket pocket, or sinks into an armchair with his fingers interlaced over his chest.

The first short, Hymn, is really a monologue crossed with a chamber concert, as Bennett recollects his childhood encounters with classical music and jazz. He recalls listening to the wireless, scrutinising smug orchestra members at Leeds Town Hall, and trying to play the violin as his father did, only to fall disappointingly short.

My only cavil is how Jennings, under Nadia Fall's direction, looks over-demonstratively mournful and nostalgic as the quartet launch into George Fenton's plangent score. The actor stands amid dust-sheeted furnishings, his face bathed by sunset lighting. Part of Bennett's brilliance as a writer is that he never lays it on thick, emotionally. He is too deft and wry for that. Yet Untold Stories (as the title implies) has seen him opening up slightly more, late in life, and Cocktail Sticks is an acutely touching as well as humorous portrait of his working-class parents. This second memoir is directed by Nicholas Hytner, with Jennings slipping between past and present, remembered and imagined conversations.

Jeff Rawle is quietly superb as Bennett's uxorious but antisocial father. And Gabrielle Lloyd is poignant as the playwright's nattering mam who – while her son becomes an Oxford intellectual and star, via Beyond the Fringe – naively dreams of hosting cocktail parties, is hospitalised for depression and eventually lapses into languageless senility. It's hard not to weep, although – or rather, because – Bennett remains fundamentally of the English old school that doesn't do outpourings of grief. By the way, if you're still wondering, the only point where Jennings breaks into song is in a knowingly absurd bout of jazz scatting.

In Before the Party (Almeida, London *****), Rodney Ackland's serio-satirical forgotten gem from 1949, a stuffy lawyer called Aubrey Skinner (Michael Thomas) and his Home Counties wife Blanche (primping Stella Gonet) are keen to appear impeccable, frantically sweeping improprieties under the carpet. He's angling to run as a Conservative MP and they're getting dressed up for a grandee-schmoozing bash, with their daughters in tow. However, the household's cook has just revealed she's a born-again fascist. The couple's recently widowed eldest, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), has shamelessly acquired a rakish admirer, and she's about to drag a more shocking skeleton out of the cupboard.

What's breathtaking about Matthew Dunster's production is the way it slaloms – with phenomenal agility – between a comedy of manners, a crime thriller and a tragic exposé of an alcoholic marriage. The play's ending falters, with one too many confessions, and Dunster should sling out the design team's projected cartoons, incongruously framing the action. But Parkinson is enthralling, with that husky crack in her voice venting suppressed desperation. Michelle Terry is priceless as her sourpuss sister and June Watson a trouper as Nanny, while Thomas and Gonet make hypocritical shenanigans damnably entertaining.

Finally, what about an intellectual get-together? The Salon Project (The Pit, London *) – in the season Wonder: Art and Science on the Brain – promises to costume every punter, recreating a belle époque salon where everyone can mingle with experts from neuroscience and the arts.

Being dolled up in Edwardian lace, in the Pit's dressing rooms, was a novelty. Where's the expertise for the next two hours, though? Mainly left to talk among themselves, the audience drifts around a white chamber, with fizzy wine. This is execrably lazy performance art. "Host", Stewart Laing, and "salonnière" Marcia Farquhar – neither clever nor funny – blather about clothes or announce a tableau vivant of nudes posed with iPads.

At the last minute, we're rescued by Oxford neuroscientist Professor Russell Foster and his fascinating mini-lecture on the dangers of sleep deprivation. And so to bed.

 

'Untold Stories' (020-7452 3000) to 15 Jun; 'Before the Party' (020-7359 4404) to 11 May; 'The Salon Project' (020-7638 8891) to 14 Apr

 

Critic's Choice

Proof, David Auburn's award-winning tragicomedy about maths, mourning and mental instability gets a quietly superb revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London (to 27 Apr). Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, updated by Colin Teevan, is at the Citizens, Glasgow (to 27 Apr), with Siobhan Redmond as Mephistopheles.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot