Moving Alan Bennett double bill Hymn and Cocktail Sticks

Pitch-perfect production of Bennett memoirs reveals Britain's beloved writer at his best

LAST UPDATED AT 11:28 ON Wed 19 Dec 2012

What you need to know
A double bill of short autobiographical plays by Alan Bennett, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, has opened at the National Theatre.

Hymn, first performed at the Harrogate Festival in August 2001, is a series of memoirs with music incorporating hymns from Bennett's childhood. Cocktail Sticks, an oratorio without music, revisits some of the themes of Alan Bennett's memoir A Life Like Other People's, where a son talks to his dead father as his mother yearns for a different life.

Nicholas Hytner directs Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett in both works. Music is performed by members of the Southbank Sinfonia. Hymn plays until 17 March; Cocktail Sticks until 30 March. Both plays can be seen together on Sundays.

What the critics like
It's a "delectable double-bill", says Paul Taylor in The Independent. In Hymn, a string quartet provides the lovely soundtrack to Bennett's reminiscences, while in Cocktail Sticks "hilarious comedy" is balanced with "aching poignancy".

The first work, Hymn, is enjoyable and touching, says Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, while the second piece, Cocktail Sticks, "strikes me as one of the finest and most moving works Bennett has ever written". Hytner's pitch-perfect production finds the most beloved of living British writers "at his incomparable best".

Actor Alex Jennings catches "the slouching, observant outsiderishness" of Bennett, says Libby Purves in The Times. "So vivid is the identification that you hardly realise what a marvellous performance Jennings is giving."

What they don't like
These two "recollections" contain material that will be familiar to readers of Bennett's memoirs, says Michael Billington in The Guardian. But even if much of the material is not new, "it gains by being staged in Nicholas Hytner's economical production" with Jennings playing Bennett "to perfection". · 

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