Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, Lyttelton, National Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

“I have never found it easy to belong. So much repels,” declares Alan Bennett (uncannily well- played by Alex Jennings) towards the close of the first in this delectable double-bill of short autobiographical pieces. “Hymns help. They blur.”

That sense of not fitting in connects the 2001 work Hymn – a memoir of the music in the author's childhood – with Cocktail Sticks which revisits in semi-dramatised form themes found in A Life Like Other People's, Bennett's prose account of the marriage of his chronically shy and retiring parents (a Leeds butcher and his wife) and of his mother's battles with depression.  This was “an illness to which she was not socially entitled” but which, with grim irony, she was granted, as distinct from those other features of the middle-class world - cocktail parties, avocado pears, coffee mornings – for which unavailingly yearned.

In Hymn (directed by Nadia Fall), a string quartet, drawn from members of the Southbank Sinfonia, perform a lovely piece by George Fenton which nostalgically incorporates memories of Delius, Bridge, Elgar, a Palm Court orchestra, English hymn tunes and even a quote from “Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats”.  It provides the soundtrack to Bennett's reminiscences of youthful concert-going in Leeds Town Hall where the school seats were behind the double-basses (“rather like watching the circus from behind the elephants”) and the (rather Oedipal) failed violin lessons with his father who was a naturally talented amateur fiddler.

The hilarious comedy and the aching poignancy of Cocktail Sticks, premiered in Nicholas Hytner's pitch-perfect production, are enhanced through a device whereby neither death nor Alzheimer's prevent the dramatist from chatting to his parents – “Dad, you're dead, we can talk about it now”. 

Jeff Rawle beautifully captures the unassuming and benign nature of the latter, while Gabrielle Lloyd's Mam breaks your heart as she drifts from from vague aspiration and shame at how “Everybody else is the same” but their into severe depression and dementia. 

“Did you get your childhood back?” the old woman asks her son in a terribly moving moment when dramatic licence bestows lucidity on her.  But the author eventually comes to realise that a supposedly non-childhood, low on trauma and deprivation, is no necessary handicap to creativity since “you don't put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there”.

To 30 March 2013; 0207 452 3000