Went to the penultimate performance of Alan Bennett’s, ‘Hymn and Cocktail Sticks’ which, despite it’s inherent sadness, left me reassured that yes, this was ‘life’ as once we knew it.
‘Untold Stories’ is based on Bennett’s personal experiences, where categories of class were concerned with occupation, income and access to education, the latter was often the only means of moving up in the social strata.
In my lifetime ‘class’ has largely been replaced by ‘the cult of celebrity’. In Brighton and it’s environs, it’s not so much birth and breeding or a university education that separates the haves and the have-nots but, as ever, the accumulation of wealth, often inherited, one’s cultural interests and that essential accessory – no, not the latest handbag – the second home abroad.
Here in ‘Untold Stories’ the cast, Alex Jennings as Bennett, Gabrielle Lloyd as Mam, Jeff Rawie as Dad were totally brilliant as were Derek Hutchinson and Sue Williams in various cameos. The memoir of music in childhood was by George Fenton and the brilliant direction and stage design completed a wonderful show.
We are reminded of course that his father, a butcher, played the violin and there on stage was a four-piece quartet adding a truly touching element to the dramatic effect of ‘Hymn’ – one of the stories. A duet accompanying ‘Cocktail Sticks’ was also very effective.
Musicans – Director (Chris Fish) Lisa Bucknell. Rachel Elliot, Kimberley Jill Harrenstein, Jeremy Isaac, Gaille-Ann Micel, Seila Tammisola, Barbara Zdsiarska.
Those of a certain age can, of course, remember what he is talking about, hymns, sung in assembly, the kind of things that our mothers would have kept in the cupboard in the kitchen. In Mrs Bennett’s case this was Oxo, two glace cherries, cochineal and a tiny bottle of sherry for trifle that, apparently, lasted for years.
It is a gentle voyage of discovery into Bennett as a boy, teenager and man. We have his writing, layer upon layer of gentle probing even more touching when it is a memoir looking at what we all know by now were his parents very ordinary lives. His mother’s constant hope of a little more glamour and people coming round just didn’t happen.
Self-effacing as ever he appears regretful in later life that he did not have a ‘traumatic childhood’ and that his parents embarrassed him at Oxford, while a fellow student Russell Harty, with very common parents, celebrated them and threw a cocktail party in their honour.
His portrayal of his mother’s depression could only touch one’s soul and remind us how very vulnerable people are with such an affliction. ‘That dress she has on is not hers,’ ‘has she got her own teeth in today?’. What’s new regarding ‘care’ homes? But why, I wonder, do those around their loved one’s always want them to know their names? Why can’t a smile from the afflicted and their joy at having a visitor, any visitor, be enough?
There is no doubt however that Alan Bennett was a caring son to the very end and Mrs Bennett did get her lifelong wish, her funeral was made into a kind of ‘cocktail party’. Brilliant in content, humour and music in both pieces.
I know something of both Alan Ayckbourn (playwright, director, actor) and Bennett territory as I presented my parents’ marionettes on the Spa in Scarborough in the late fifties and was later in Variety, several times playing Leeds City of Variety. I was performing marionette cabaret by then, lacking very much formal education and too young to appreciate the flowering of such writers at the time, which I have come to regret.
I usually go to the theatre on my own and my partner goes off the to scour the nearest music shops! Today I got talking to a young woman next to me about ‘The Lady the Van’ in the interval. However, I often value solo theatre-going, to be able to digest a performance, not have to say what one thought of it too early, savour it like, well, one of Alan Bennett’s mother’s sherry trifles.
Time to go back and have another look at the book ‘Untold Stories’.
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