Like Hymn, Cocktail Sticks is played on Sundays and some early evenings on the set of Alan Bennett’s exuberant new play, People. The faded glories of the country house are muffled in black drapes and replaced with sparse furniture, including a small, plastic, kitchen cupboard.
Jeff Rawle (Dad), Gabrielle Lloyd (Mum) and Alex Jennings (Alan Bennett) in Cocktail Sticks at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London Photo: Jayne West
Bennett’s mother is in a nursing home as he investigates the contents of this cupboard, observing that if he were a “real writer” he would list them for future reference. He then names many items: the bottle of cochineal, the glace cherries in a glass, the desiccated coconut and an unexpected plastic drum of cocktail sticks. He clearly has listed them.
As he addresses his parents in times past - his butcher father is long dead - Bennett explores what has made him a writer. He bemoans his normal childhood for lack of material: “because I never went short when I was little, now I’m starving.” He was already successful, however, and he admits that when his mother says she has given him “some script” she is right, so the complaints are tongue-in-cheek.
Class is the true subject. Bennett’s family is far from crass - perhaps not crass enough: his father is musical, his depressive mother aspirational, dreaming of hosting cocktail parties. He is close to them despite the gulf introduced by education and experience, lacking easy social confidence as they do and feeling shame at being ashamed of them. The resulting play-memoir is affectionate, funny, sad and a little uncomfortable.
Alex Jennings once again captures Bennett perfectly - his diffidence, his wit, his self-centredness and touches of acid. He is ably supported by Jeff Rawle and Gabrielle Lloyd as the bemused parents in Nicholas Hytner’s highly enjoyable production.