Back in November last year, I was a little disappointed with Alan Bennett's 'People', a play that also proved disappointing to others if the reaction of one particular correspondent is anything to go by. But this absorbing double-bill returns us to familiar Bennett territory. First performed in 2001, 'Hymn' is a kind of curtain-raiser of 30 minutes duration, which takes a look at the part music played in Alan Bennett's childhood. And 'Cocktail Sticks' was premiered at the National late least year, and provides an insight into Mr Bennett's family – in particular the characters of his Mam and Dad. In both of these plays, Alan Bennett is the on-stage narrator and is wonderfully played by Alex Jennings.
In 'Hymn' Mr Bennett describes his musical education which largely occurred during concerts in Leeds Town Hall. But his father also provided musical inspiration. In spite of his 'big butcher's hands', his Dad also played the violin and we hear, in almost poetic terms, of the young Alan's fascination with the instrument and its velvet-lined case – “the most luxurious object in the house”. Attempts by Dad to teach the young Alan the violin result in much screeching, and Dad's ambitions to become a double bass player and earn a few pounds on the side are thwarted largely due to the fact that he could not get the instrument on trams. 'Hymn' is not just a piece about music, it is a play set to music composed by George Fenton and which, with the assistance of a very accomplished quartet of musicians, takes us through a staggering variety of emotions.
'Cocktail Sticks' is also set in Leeds. Here, we are introduced to Mr Bennett's mother, or Mam as he always calls her. Mam and Dad are not social or very sociable beings. Nevertheless, Mam complains of never going anywhere or doing anything, and seeks enlightenment and inspiration by reading 'Woman's Own'. In its pages she discovers strange fruits and vegetables, and cocktails which seem appealing even though both she and her husband are averse to alcohol. Peppered with typical bennett humour, the play becomes more poignant and sad when Dad dies and Mam suffers from recurring depression and has to be hospitalised.
Most people who grew-up in Yorkshire or, indeed, other parts of the north of England, will probably be familiar with some of the features of Bob Crowley's authentically nostalgic set design. First, there is the sideboard which at least in my childhood was the home for almost any object which had to be kept hidden from view, and which was a treasure-trove of useful and useless objects. In the bedroom, there is what looks like a candlewick bedspread, and the essential large blanket box, which always resided at the foot of the bed.
Mr Jennings brilliantly captures Mr Bennett's vocal characteristics, getting a laugh even with the first phrase he delivers. But he also bears a striking resemblance in terms of his physical appearance – the blond hair, glasses, the sports jacket with the inevitable jumper snuggling underneath, the tie, the slacks and tan brogues. It is the never-changing, sensible wardrobe of a neat librarian rather than a world-renowned author and playwright. Gabrielle Lloyd is truly mesmerising as Mam, a slim, rather shy and nervous woman who has dreams to be more than she is, but feels restrained by and tethered to the world she knows. And Jeff Rawle provides excellent support as Dad, the stalwart, violin-playing butcher.
'Cocktail Sticks' is funnier than 'Hymn', but I would gladly sit-through several performances of the latter just to hear George Fenton's hauntingly atmospheric music again. 'Cocktail Sticks' certainly has more humour, but it is also more touching as well. Together though, this is a superb double bill which puts Alan Bennett right back at the top of his game.
"Exhilarating and moving."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"Throughout, there is one glorious constant: that wonderful voice, captured to perfection by Jennings...Assured production."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Played superbly by Alex Jennings, who achieves an uncanny vocal and visual likeness to Bennett."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times