Theatre Review: Hymn/Cocktail Sticks by Alan Bennett, The National Theatre

Jeff Rawle, Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in Cocktail Sticks at the National Theatre

Jeff Rawle, Gabrielle Lloyd and Alex Jennings in Cocktail Sticks at the National Theatre

I spent one summer working in Primrose Hill and the occasional lunchtime highlight was spotting Alan Bennett on his old-fashioned woman’s bicycle complete with wicker basket. He always seemed to be going to the Post Office. The whole effect – the bike, the wicker basket, popping to the Post Office and his thick rimmed glasses – was just like watching a character from one of his plays.

And here he is in one of his plays. Or rather, not him, but the remarkable Alex Jennings who inhabits the playwright’s awkward self-possession with such brilliance that there are times when I wondered if this was a double bluff and that it really was Bennett. His own mother would probably have trouble telling them apart. And here she is, or rather her dramatic ghost, played so beautifully by Gabrielle Lloyd in the second of the afternoon’s short plays, Cocktail Sticks.

Both Hymn and Cocktail Sticks see Bennett revisiting territory from his memoir A Life Like Other People’s, recalling his pre-poncy Primrose Hill days and reflecting on how his quiet, uneventful early life came to shape him and his work. The first play, the short but very sweet Hymn, is a musical memoir where Bennett’s words share a stage with George Fenton’s clever score and a string quartet (plucked from the Southbank Sinfonia). Fenton’s score is evocative of a bygone England, weaving Elgar and Delias into his original work while at one point providing sound effects to the memory that lies at the heart of Hymn. Hymn spins on the moment Bennett’s father, a keen and accomplished violin player, attempted, with little success, to teach his son his beloved instrument. Bennett laments that his father’s disappointment at his son’s inepitude would “outlast the violin and my childhood, and go down to the grave”. *Sob*.

Themes and storylines naturally overlap into Cocktail Sticks, a piece that is both a homage and atonement to his eccentric yet utterly normal parents. The play is everything Bennett has come to encompass – unearthing the funny, heartbreaking and poignant in the ordinariness of life – telling the story of how he got to understand that there was art in the everyday.

The play begins with him remonstrating with his mother about his undramatic, happy childhood, a childhood so devoid of incident that he claims (this is twenty one years ago, after Bennett had already found success on the West End stage) it’s given him nothing to write about. “We did our best. We took you to Morecombe”, “You played out with your friends”, replies his unmoved mother. “I bet Proust didn’t play out with his friend,” mutters Jennings’ Bennett later to none other than J.B. Priestley who momentarily walks into the Bennett’s domestic setting.

The piece starts after the death of his father; his mother now in a home in Weston-Super-Mare, when Bennett is clearing out the family’s kitchen cupboards and discovers a box of cocktail sticks. Bennett then oscillates between the years, resurrecting his parents to quietly demand questions and atone for his embarrassment of them that reached a peak during his time at Oxford. The portrait of his mother is particularly moving as we watch her slip from vague disappointment to depression and finally dementia. Mrs Bennett was a woman who dreamed of a life beyond bus rides to Skipton and trips to the cinema, convinced everyone else was sipping cocktails with prawns in them while she sat at home drinking tea. Her desires were simple – to hold a cockTAIL party, but the stench of dripping that wafted up from Mr Bennett senior’s butcher’s shop that the family lived above and her husband’s aversion to alcoholic drinks barred her entry to this glamorous world.

“I’ve been reading about these cockTAILS”
“They’re COCKtails, not cockTAILS”

“Yes, cockTAILS”
“COCKtails, the emphasis is on the tail not the, oh never mind.”

In lesser hands, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks could be twee or, worse, patronising. After all both plays rely on us, the audience, (we’re at The National here, so it’s largely white, middle class Londoners and those fresh off the train from Dorking) laughing at two working class northerners and their distrust of avocado pears. But Bennett’s deft touch ensures that we’re not laughing at them, but at him, at us – his happy parents don’t seem like the naive ones compared to our 21st century lust for drama and revelation that have brought us no-where. The performances also prevent it slipping into a nostalgia/lets-laugh-at-the-funny-northerners show. Lloyd and Jennings I’ve already mentioned, but Jeff Rawle as Mr Bennett senior also brought the right amount of gruff northernness to the role without falling into Last Of The Summer Wine territory.

This is a beautiful, tender piece of theatre with is written and performed with real affection and is as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking.

Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, The National Theatre until March 17 2013. Transfers to the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End from March 22 2013 for a twelve week run.

by Suzanne Elliott