Review: Cocktail Sticks, by Alan Bennett, at the National Theatre

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. Photo by Jayne West.

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. Photo by Jayne West.

Looking at the poster, you inevitably do a double take: Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett looks astoundingly like the real thing. It’s not the face, the hair or the glasses, it’s the posture. Shoulders low but a little stiff, hands close to the body, minimal and strictly necessary movement.

And then the performance starts and the voice seals the transformation. In years to come, when visual memory fades and echoic memory holds better, I will have a hard time connecting Alex Jennings with this performance. The voice is so much like Alan Bennett’s I need to make a point to remember it’s not the writer performing his own words.

But what about the play? A series of memories, thoughts and suppositions, mercilessly reworked with a writer’s flair for revealing and concealing, make for a vivid, playful, often moving experience. In many ways, the production (as directed by Nic Hytner) is a slight of hand: it lulls you to a comfortable place, in order to abandon you in the cruelties of passing time, in order to save you right at the end. The best passages involve characters escaping reality: the son talking to his dead father, the dead father talking about his son’s sexuality, the writer creating (literary) life out of thin air.

Jeff Rawle as the father is a quiet, profoundly touching presence, and Gabrielle Lloyd as the mother implies a slightly odd but fearless spirit. Alex Jennings, beyond the uncanny Alan Bennett transformation, has the ability to suggest profound changes with only the tiniest of adjustments: sitting motionless next to his frail mother, painting a punchline with a coating of sadness, playing a ten year old boy with the slightest drop of shoulders and voice.

Design elements and props sit within the set of People, the new Alan Bennett play currently staged at the National. Musicians accompany with live music on stage. The presence of so many disparate things gives an air of shabbiness. I suspect it’s not down to necessity: the play dances around the essential truth that life is a kaleidoscope of messy, uncontrollable, wonderful things.

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