Most people, including me, now feel they know Alan Bennett's late parents better than their own. Like a pair of cracked Babylonian artefacts, Alan's dear old Mam and Dad have been subjected to endless forensic examination ever since he began writing about his Leeds childhood a couple of decades ago. For those who are well acquainted with the cobbled streets of Bennett-land, Cocktail Sticks doesn't add much to the fund of information, but it's an exquisite hour in the theatre.
This is partly because of a great performance by Alex Jennings as Bennett, complete with diffident manner, owlish spectacles and impeccable northern accent. What he captures best of all is the writer's astringent, unsentimental quality. In life, Bennett is a diffident character who may occasionally flinch from direct confrontation, but as a writer he is unsparing about himself and, of course, about his Mam and Dad. Mam, in particular, may be regretting the long term consequences of her decision to put away a packet of cocktail sticks in the kitchen cupboard. This archaeological evidence of a social life aspired to but never lived provides Bennett for the title of his hour-long journey down memory lane.
The success of this play in the Lyttelton owes a lot to Nicholas Hytner's direction and to the cameo performances of Gabrielle Lloyd as Mam and Jeff Rawle as Dad. The timing is perfect, there's a subtle musical score that never gets in the way, and there's excellent help from Derek Hutchinson and Maggie McCarthy in a variety of supporting roles. But it's easy to overlook just how clever a dramatist Bennett is. He strings together a series of short scenes, dipping in and out of a conversational narrative with his audience. Each scene is a short snapshot, and the roles of the young and old Alan, one participating and the other observing and remembering, are blended perfectly. Bennett stitches the whole thing together with great skill, turning the banality and absence of incident of his early life into rich material. Did a strange man once put his hand on Alan's knee on an outing to the pictures? The truth of the incident, like the conversation between Bohr and Heisenberg in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, will forever remain a mystery. What counts is how you tell 'em.