The Theatreguide.London Review
Stories: Hymn & Cocktail Sticks
Duchess Theatre Spring 2013
These two short pieces by Alan Bennett were previously performed separately as early evening extras at the National Theatre and are now combined in a characteristically low-key, gently humorous and touching evening of Bennettiana.
Not so much plays as staged essays, they resemble the monologues of reminiscence Bennett himself has performed on television. Here Alex Jennings plays Bennett in a strikingly accurate impersonation, combining the familiar look, mannerisms, voice and delivery without ever tipping over into parody, so that part of the pleasure is the illusion of being in the real Alan's presence.
The shorter piece, Hymn, uses an onstage string quartet playing music by George Fenton as a Proustian madeleine, triggering a stream of consciousness that travels from the hymns sung in school assembly through his father's violin, songs heard on the wireless, and concerts at Leeds Town Hall, to a visit to a Yorkshire church and its Great War memorial.
Like the best of Bennett's essays it is quiet and unassuming almost to the point of invisibility and yet lingers warmly in the memory.
The longer piece, Cocktail Sticks, uses some of the autobiographical material from Bennett's 2005 volume Untold Stories, though in a different form. It starts from the adult Alan's complaint that his childhood was too ordinary and colourless to provide any material for a writer.
But the discovery of an unopened pack of cocktail sticks in his mother's kitchen reminds him how she wondered at a world seen only in women's magazines – a world where people drank cocktails and had coffee mornings – but lacked the courage or imagination to reach toward it.
And in that limitation, matched by his father's contentment with his boundaries, Bennett finds all the fascinating raw material he could ask for.
Alex Jennings is accompanied in this piece by Gabrielle Lloyd as Mam, Jeff Rawle as Dad and Derek Hutchinson and Sue Wallace as Everyone Else, with Lloyd in particular giving a moving portrait of the woman with just enough imagination to feel the slight flutterings of discontent.
Cocktail Sticks does not centre on Mrs. Bennett's mental problems (a lifetime of intermittent depressions followed by Alzheimer's) as much as the 2005 published version does, but Lloyd is equally touching as it does follow her decline.
Like all Alan Bennett's nondramatic writing, these two essays in memory are miniatures, tiny stories of the small lives of little people, made to seem special – or, rather, displaying the specialness only his generous insight could uncover – because it is Alan Bennett who is telling them.
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