Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett: The British stage’s finest imitative talent
Alan Bennett occupies a role in British cultural life not far short of absolute monarch. Much is forgiven on the way. His character Hector's enthusiasm for gay flirtations with youths in The History Boys and portrayal of W.H. Auden's fondness for rent boys in The Habit of Art are treated with an old-school nod and wink out of kilter with today's no-excuses mood towards sexual exploitation of the young.
But quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi, as Hector doubtless told his sixth-formers.
The cult of the amiably sharp-eyed Yorkshireman is apparent in two leisurely recollections of his own life, now turned into a pigeon-pair of dramas. A writer might as well write his own obituary to forestall others making a hash of it. Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, at the Duchess Theatre after a transfer from the National, take us on unhurried journeys through Bennett's life.
Hymn is more obviously derived from his prose writing, a challenge Nadia Fall's direction does not entirely overcome despite its touching musical arrangement by George Fenton performed by an onstage quartet. Alex Jennings, the British stage's finest imitative talent, lightens his voice to mimic Bennett's dialect and crams his 6ft gait that has allowed him to play gawky sorts like Albert Speer and Prince Charles into the apologetic shuffle of the mole — like Mr Bennett.
Hymn's poignancy will be immediately felt by anyone whose parents saw in classical music both an elevation above the grind of everyday life and an escalator to social mobility for their offspring.
Heartstrings are plucked as assiduously as D strings as we meet the young Bennett, scraping away at his half-size violin and experiencing the first stabs of parental disappointment, which "will outlast my violin and my childhood and go down to my grave".
Bennett's ability to make the past vivid and familiar is peerless as we are transported down the wormhole to the postwar world of hymns known by heart and kindly, staid decency. Music and religion consumed together, Bennett notes, have a way of making us feel less incidental to the world — a lovely thought which reminded me that my mother used to sing "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" while making Sunday lunch. If the memories sometime feel a tad constructed, the eloquence of the writing compensates.