Greenside @ Riddles Court – Thistle Theatre
I’m a big fan of Alan Bennett’s writing. My introduction to his work was The Uncommon Reader, a novella where The Queen picks up reading as a hobby and becomes a disruptive nuisance to the very institution she represents. What hooked me was the cutting observations and acerbic wit of the narrative voice, a trademark of Bennett’s prose and theatre work. Cocktail Sticks is one of his more obscure plays, where he turns his scrutiny upon his own childhood and the lives of his parents, so I was excited to see how Barnes Community Players would deal with such a unique text.
Ashley Brown is Alan Bennett, the narrator of the play who begins by questioning his lack of a memorable or particularly exciting childhood. Brown is delightfully sly and captures Bennett’s sharp humour and gentle compassion with ease. His performance helps to propel the plot, which is as fascinating as it is whimsical.
Bennett rediscovers his upbringing as he charts the course of his parents’ lives, considering their relationship with each other and how shifting social norms affected them. Many of this production’s funniest moments revolve around Mam’s (Win Duggan) struggle to understand and even pronounce the modern “cocktail party” as well as deciphering when is appropriate to offer guests “something stronger”. Most of this show’s gags are produced from the peculiar quirks of the very insular Bennett family. The script also dwells significantly on this rise of consumerism, and how it impacted Bennett’s parents’ perception of their social standing. We follow Bennett from his teen years where he begins to consider his queer identity, to university and his first theatrical successes, all the way to the deaths of his parents and his own struggle with cancer. Bennett’s exploration of his childhood results in a newfound appreciation of his upbringing, as he reflects towards the close of the play: “You don’t put yourself in what you write, you find yourself in it”.
Unfortunately, the script is by far the strongest part of this production, which struggles to add much to Bennett’s writing and therefore feels a bit stale. The staging is functional but nothing special – it feels crammed onto the stage of Thistle Theatre. On the left side there is Bennett’s writing desk, and on the right two chairs. These are inhabited by Bennett and his parents, respectively, but apart from the chairs forming a semi-believable bed and front seat of a car, not much is made of the set. A few motifs in the writing, which provide some comedic relief in the darkest parts of the production where Bennett recounts the deaths of his parents, are represented by on-stage props, but it feels like more could have been made of the venue.
These darker moments are ultimately very moving, Duggan convincingly acts the mental deterioration of an ageing Mam, which proves an upsetting watch. Sadly, the weaker supporting cast often detract from the overall quality – the occasional misremembered line becomes a little jarring, and it’s as though the production weighs down Bennett’s writing in places.
For the most part however, it is an amusing and touching production of a more recent and obscure Bennett work. If you are a fan of his, it is definitely worth seeing, as productions of Cocktail Sticks are few and far between.
Written by: Alan Bennett
Produced by: Barnes Community Players
Cocktail Sticks has completed its current run at EdFringe.