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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week