Not In Front of the Parents

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett: The British stage’s finest imitative talent

Alan Bennett occupies a role in British cultural life not far short of absolute monarch. Much is forgiven on the way. His character Hector’s enthusiasm for gay flirtations with youths in The History Boys and portrayal of W.H. Auden’s fondness for rent boys in The Habit of Art are treated with an old-school nod and wink out of kilter with today’s no-excuses mood towards sexual exploitation of the young.

But quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi, as Hector doubtless told his sixth-formers.

The cult of the amiably sharp-eyed Yorkshireman is apparent in two leisurely recollections of his own life, now turned into a pigeon-pair of dramas. A writer might as well write his own obituary to forestall others making a hash of it. Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, at the Duchess Theatre after a transfer from the National, take us on unhurried journeys through Bennett’s life.

Hymn is more obviously derived from his prose writing, a challenge Nadia Fall’s direction does not entirely overcome despite its touching musical arrangement by George Fenton performed by an onstage quartet. Alex Jennings, the British stage’s finest imitative talent, lightens his voice to mimic Bennett’s dialect and crams his 6ft gait that has allowed him to play gawky sorts like Albert Speer and Prince Charles into the apologetic shuffle of the mole — like Mr Bennett.

Hymn‘s poignancy will be immediately felt by anyone whose parents saw in classical music both an elevation above the grind of everyday life and an escalator to social mobility for their offspring.

Heartstrings are plucked as assiduously as D strings as we meet the young Bennett, scraping away at his half-size violin and experiencing the first stabs of parental disappointment, which “will outlast my violin and my childhood and go down to my grave”.

Bennett’s ability to make the past vivid and familiar is peerless as we are transported down the wormhole to the postwar world of hymns known by heart and kindly, staid decency. Music and religion consumed together, Bennett notes, have a way of making us feel less incidental to the world — a lovely thought which reminded me that my mother used to sing “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” while making Sunday lunch. If the memories sometime feel a tad constructed, the eloquence of the writing compensates.

Cocktail Sticks continues the ruminations of childhood and the capacity of dead parents to evoke memories of grief and irritation in equal part. Gabrielle Lloyd plays Lilian Bennett here, nervously pulling her salmon pink cardigan across her bosom as if it were body armour, and Jeff Rawle is Bennett’s butcher dad, the sort of chap evoked when today’s politicians gently patronise “people who work hard and play by the rules”. But Lilian reads Beverley Nichols (who then played the role that her son would one day occupy) in Woman’s Own and hankers for a distant world of cocktail parties and repartee, while having access to neither.

The embarrassment of the socially mobile is richly evoked in Nicholas Hytner’s production through minute gestures, hesitations and irritations. When Alan’s parents visit him at Oxford, he treats them to a cursory tour of his college, lest they embarrass his friends (or rather, him). The shame experienced then, he confesses, is far outdone by that of recalling in maturity the casual cruelties we mete out to those who love us most. 

Bennett scorned the late Margaret Thatcher, whom he blamed for many of Britain’s ills, at least those diagnosed by the literati of Primrose Hill. Yet it’s hard not to see parallels with his Tory contemporary in his own rise from provincial grammar school to iconic stature, and in his father a Yorkshire version of Alderman Roberts.

Mrs T’s passing unleashed a long-promised argument about how horrible people are allowed be about the departed. British theatre has never had much of a good word to say about the leaderene, alive or dead. I put that point recently to Hytner on Radio 3’s Night Waves (it’s still online if you like a good row). He disagrees, claiming that the full range of political discussion is represented at the National Theatre he runs and elsewhere. I doubt this. Political theatre is far more comfortable with the 1960s and 1970s than what people voted for subsequently. 

The symbolic dramatic legacy of the 1980s is Lee Hall’s Billy Elliot, by far the snappiest commentary on the divided decade and the tension it exposed between communitarianism and meritocracy.

The play’s striking miners of the Durham coalfields sing “Merry Christmas Maggie” and cheerily anticipate her death as a warming thought; yet Billy himself is precisely one of the “tall poppies” she wanted to flourish. That tension means Lee Hall’s bromide remains watchable long after most anti-Thatcher dramas have crumbled into dust.

In Peter Morgan’s The Audience, at the Gielgud Theatre until June 15, Maggie is played by Haydn Gwynne as imperious, which she was, and venally corruptible, which she wasn’t. David Hare, the dominant force of British political drama, still seems to be blaming the small-state Thatcher legacy even in works which attack New Labour. I haven’t seen a Mrs T on stage who was more than the agglomeration of unnuanced attitudes.

Television drama, by virtue of wider audiences, feels more compelled to reflect the true range of opinion. Andrea Riseborough marked herself out as a coming star as Margaret Hilda Roberts in The Long Walk to Finchley, a play which acknowledged the extraordinary determination of her rise and a kind of proto-feminism, nimbly disguised by her appearance as prim matriarch. As for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady on screen, it’s an adept imitation but a distastefully voyeuristic piece of work about dementia and failing powers.

Michael Sheen nailed Tony Blair’s guile and brilliance first in The Deal and later The Queen, yet the reasons why Baroness Thatcher prevailed for three elections and left her mark on the world stage and the country we now inhabit go strangely underexplored by our best dramatic writers. There’s a job to finish here.

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