Sunday, 13 January 2013

Theatre review: Hymn and Cocktail Sticks

If Alan Bennett's new play People turned out not to be what everyone was expecting - and not in a good way - the National has teamed it up with a pair of autobiographical shorts that are much more classic Bennett, in style but more importantly in quality. Alex Jennings plays Bennett himself as the narrator of Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, one of which plays in repertory before evening performances of People; and both can be seen as a double bill on selected Sundays. Jennings is not an actor you'd immediately think of as physically similar to the playwright, which makes his transformation all the more impressive: Having worked with the writer on The Habit of Art it's not entirely surprising if Jennings has picked up the writer's voice and, crucially to the telling of these stories, its particular inflections and quirks.

But it's physically where the work the actor's put in becomes astonishing: Such a familiar figure, it does seem as if it's Alan Bennett who shuffles onto the stage, and Jennings' face turns into his at times so accurately it's almost unnerving. It's a detailed performance perfect for putting across two of Bennett's trademark wry examinations of himself through his past.

First up Bennett reflects on his relationship with music and how it first developed. As such Hymn (directed by Nadia Fall) sees Jennings accompanied by a string quartet drawn from the Southbank Sinfonia, playing music specially composed by George Fenton, and with a feel of the classical British composers whose work formed the main repertoire of the short-lived Yorkshire Orchestra. Bennett takes us through his emotions as a boy discovering this music for the first time but as the piece goes on it becomes a lot more about his relationship with his violin-playing father, disappointed when it turns out his son doesn't share any natural talent for the instrument. Hymn is a pretty gentle but sometimes moving half-hour but what took me by surprise was how affected I was by Fenton's musical interludes - simply watching people play instruments usually bores me quickly but I was kind of transported here. Ian did say he found that in an already-short piece it felt like the frequency of musical sections felt like padding, but as Hymn was originally commissioned (in 2001, with the playwright playing himself) as a piece for a string quartet with Bennett's contribution coming later, it makes sense that the story would be built around the music rather than the other way round.

After a longer-than-usual interval Nicholas Hytner directs Cocktail Sticks, a new companion piece in which Jennings is joined on stage by a few more actors, so we now get to meet Alan's father (Jeff Rawle) and mother (Gabrielle Lloyd.) It's the latter who's the main focus this time, as a conversation he had with her in the 1970s set him thinking about his childhood, and the fact that it was a bit too well-adjusted and uneventful - at least from the perspective of a writer looking for material. Of course out of this apparent lack of events he does spin out an entertaining memoir, that keeps coming back to his mother's feeling of being left out of something. She longs to go to cocktail parties (but she doesn't like alcohol) or even a coffee morning (she doesn't like coffee either.)

Although it has its sad side as Bennett's mother fades first into a retirement home then into dementia, Cocktail Sticks is for the most part a very funny play with much of the playwright's combination of dry wit and eye for detail in nostalgia in evidence, and strong performances from Lloyd, Rawle, plus Maggie McCarthy and Derek Hutchinson in multiple roles backing up Jennings. The piece also gives a bit of a different perspective to Hymn's recollection of a disappointed father, showing what might seem like an example of a strained relationship, turning out to be more of an attempt at digging up childhood trauma in an actually quite happy time.

Though short, both pieces do run out of steam a bit at the end as it feels like they're being spun out to their conclusions. But they're anchored by a central performance that's more textured than a simple impression.

Hymn by Alan Bennett is booking in repertory until the 17th of March at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 35 minutes straight through.

Cocktail Sticks by Alan Bennett is booking in repertory until the 30th of March at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

Double bill running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including 40-minute interval.

ETA: The double bill is transferring to the Duchess Theatre from the 22nd of March to the 15th of June under the collective title Untold Stories.

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