Cocktail Sticks by Alan Bennett, adapted by Gordon House

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Cocktail Sticks by Alan Bennett, adapted by Gordon House.  Dir. House.  Perf. Alex Jennings, Alan Bennett, Gabrielle Lloyd.  BBC Radio 4, 3 Jan. 2015.

BBCiPlayer till 2 Feb. 2015.


First performed at the Royal National Theatre, Cocktail Sticks is an autobiographical piece focusing on the author’s relationship with his parents (Gabrielle Lloyd, Jeff Rawle), and how that relationship influenced his development (or lack of development) as a writer.


Bennett claims that, although his parents tried their best to bring him up decently, he was in some ways deprived of a “childhood.”  This term can be interpreted in several ways; his upbringing was so “normal” – in other words, uneventful – that he was deprived of the kind of trauma that often inspires writers in their later lives.  On the other hand his parents lacked the sense of wonder (or imagination) that might help their offspring develop his creative impulse (for example, by participating in childish fantasies).  They had a limited view of the world, which often proved constricting for the young Alan Bennett.


Gordon House’s production made adept use of different voices, contrasting the views of the aged Bennett (played by the author himself) and his youthful self (Alex Jennings).  The younger Bennett was possessed of a questioning nature; despite his mundane upbringing, he was always looking to experiment, both creatively as well as sexually.  The only trouble was that he was both timid and inhibited (at one point someone described him as “religious,” a useful term of convenience, as well as a term of abuse, especially for non-believers).  His sole medium of self-expression was to communicate in asides to the listeners, as if trying to establish the kind of close relationship with them that he could never accomplish in his adolescent or adult lives.


The older Bennett looked back on his upbringing with a mixture of nostalgia and cynicism; while understanding how his parents had in many ways inhibited him in his growing-up, they had never willfully done so.  It was mostly due to their world view; his Mam (Gabrielle Lloyd) always aspired to social advancement – by dreaming of holding parties with the cocktail sticks of the play’s title – but could never achieve her ambitions.  Her horizons, both mental as well as social, were just too limited.  His father (Jeff Rawle), a butcher by trade, worked in a shop below the family home – although good at his job, he was always someone “in trade,” which to many people during the mid-twentieth century meant that he was socially unworthy.  Both parents tried to realize their dreams through Bennett, as he obtained good marks at school, went to Oxford University, and subsequently achieved fame as a writer/performer.  But sadly Mam was unable to really understand precisely how her son had changed; on many occasions during the play she asked the kind of questions that seemed inappropriate to the occasion.


Some of the dialogue in Cocktail Sticks was particularly funny, especially when Mam and Dad went to visit Bennett in Oxford, and came across the parents of Russell Harty – tradespeople from Blackburn with a lot of money who had no compunction about asking wildly inappropriate questions of the august don Nevill Coghill (Harty’s tutor at the time) (Jeff Rawle).  Yet the play as a whole was a poignant evocation of the lives of three lower-middle class people – Bennett and his parents – who ended up going in wildly different directions.  His father retired and died of a heart-attack at the age of seventy-one; while his mother suffered from depression and spent her last days in an old people’s home in Weston-super-Mare with Alzheimer’s.  Bennett knew that he had become a different person, from the child growing up in Leeds, but also understood how he could never separate himself from his parents.  They had an influence over his past as well as his future, even though they were both dead and buried.


Alex Jennings gave a remarkable vocal characterization of the younger Bennett, his bright, enthusiastic tones contrasting with the world-weariness of Bennett himself.  Lloyd was both funny yet sad as his mother, who always wanted to escape her origins yet realized at the same time that she was eternally bound to her husband.