This review was originally written for The Public Reviews.
Hymn and Cocktail Sticks are two recollections by Alan Bennett now transferred to the West End after a successful run at the National. They both concern Alan Bennett’s relationship with his parents, Hymn around his father and Cocktail Sticks broadly with his mother. Hymn premiered in 2001 with music by George Fenton. In some ways, it is a thirty-minute chamber theatre piece accompanied by a chamber concert with Alex Jennings playing Alan Bennett. It tells the story of his childhood relationship with music, learning the violin from his butcher father and is told in a form of half monologue, half recital with
music interwoven with the words.References to music prompt the on-stage string quartet to respond and there is a lyrical dialogue between them. Combined with Jennings’ perfect Alan Bennett trademark Yorkshire whine, it carries a beautiful hypnotic quality but may be a little too effective as there is much yawning and nodding off in the audience. There is some sense of a narrative to it but it meanders and it is more akin to a mood piece. Nonetheless, it has a sense of nostalgia and heart but stops short of being overly sentimental.
Cocktail Sticks is a more conventional theatre piece with Gabrielle Lloyd as Mam and Jeff Rawle as Dad. It begins with Bennett’s complaint that his childhood was too boring and ordinary and did not leave him with enough baggage to be a great writer. It is a pointedly observed and rather touching overview of his mother’s life and comes with a healthy dose of Bennett’s wit and prose. Cocktail Sticks refer to Bennett’s mother’s social aspirations complete with avocado pears and coffee mornings and a loving tribute to her small town naivety. Although the story follows her to her later life and demise, the tone has a humour and matter-of-fact quality to it but is never overly mawkish.
Alex Jennings plays Alan Bennett perhaps even better than Bennett himself. Especially in Cocktail Sticks when he is in dialogue with others, there is an extra layer of tonal emphasis in his voice and, whilst mastering the accent, he provides an underlying energy and life to
it. Physically, the economy of movement and the sentient look on his face is beyond mimicry. He is truly living the character. The outstanding Gabrielle Lloyd carries the inhibited suburban housewife with a bustling urge to explore perfectly and Jeff Rawle’s Dad has a quiet assurance to dissuade his wife but is balanced with absolute kindness and love.
These two recollections may occasionally be a little rambling in their construction but they paint an affectionate portrait of Bennett’s parents. And if Bennett retires from the stage, there is a very capable and ready Jennings to take his place.