West Yorkshire Playhouse
Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse
Let’s get one thing straight. You don’t badmouth Alan Bennett in Leeds. The Quarry Theatre is sold out and, I would hazard a guess, half of the audience call him Alan, the ‘our’ sometimes voiced, sometimes silent, often accompanied by a little smile of self-congratulation.
And why not? He might be known as a national treasure, but only a Loiner can call him ‘Our Alan’. We all love him because he so clearly loves us. He holds up a mirror up and says—you’re all lovely, and quirky, and right funny. Except it’s a dodgy mirror, an illusionist’s mirror.
Somehow foul-mouthed, bitter, snobby, brutish Dad (Philip Martin Brown), who slorms over pin-ups and slaps his cheery wife (Mam—Marlene Sideway: a Bennett name if ever there was one) is made acceptable. Perhaps because he adores his daughter, shows his tender side, has a bad arm. Perhaps because we laugh at him whilst feeling as if we are laughing with him.
And what’s not to like about Mam herself, her intelligence blunted by a lifetime with Dad; too much stewed tea, tidying up, putting things straight. But the lovely ludic language of Leeds drips from her lips. And oh how we laugh.
Mam and Dad are amongst the last to be re-housed; all around is desolation. Mrs Clegg (Vanessa Rosenthal), the lady who does and knows everything, is still a neighbour. There are a few kids, little monkeys, still up to their tricks. But these remnants of a once-vital culture are due to leave their back-to-back home for a contemporary dwelling place.
In passing, I was told years ago, by someone in the know, that these new houses, which look like oversized concrete coal bunkers, had a life expectancy of fifteen years. Fifteen years for family houses—but it’s at least possible that one or two dignitaries became very rich, so that’s okay. And, by the way, the coal bunkers still house the likes of Mam and Dad, forty-odd years on!
Enough! Dad looks forward to the brave new world, joining societies, becoming a bit of a social mover and shaker. Mam is loathe to leave the life she’s loved, the house where she’s raised two children, Linda (Sian Reese-Williams) and... well, Dad never wants to hear his name spoken in this house (Rob Delaney)
In brilliant Bennett dialogue (my mother was born beside the Town Hall; I can vouch for his ear) they debate the pros and cons, wonder where Linda is, avoid mentioning the son who ran away to... whatever. And that would appear to be it that, all done and dusted. Until something strange happens.
At this point Bennett seems to come under the thrall of Joe Orton, or Alan Brown, the dirty, anarchic exuberant boy dramatists of the Seventies. They liked the odd stiff (in both slang senses) on stage and, like Bennett, wrote dialogue that sparkled and tinkled.
Mam and Dad become the focus of a sociological survey conducted by a mute researcher, then telly people turn up, and, and, and... It turns out our Linda is most certainly not a Private Secretary. In fact she's no better than she ought to be. What's more, he who is not spoken of is just not what he ought to be, and, and...
The unfolding plot creaks a little and in many ways has the feel of something made by crafting together a number of sketches. But the Bennett ear keeps us entertained if not enthralled. And when the comedy gets a little too near the knuckle (Boy pisses through letter box etc), the audience laughs because it’s Alan and people probably did do these things and maybe still do so where he lives now, in the south.
As the whole draws to an end, and all is deconstructed, there is hush in the theatre, almost reverence. Our Alan being serious. It's a spectacular denouement.
This play is in many ways a tour-de-force, but also it seems to lack something. The decision to put cameras on stage and ‘live’ images on a surscreen doesn’t supply the missing ingredient. Instead it emphasises the absence. Other than that James Brining’s direction is admirable and the final few minutes have the sticky tension of first class theatre.
Not Mr Bennett’s best work, but well worth a visit. It’s always a treat to be in a full house, surrounded by laughter.
Reviewer: Ray Brown