Tag Archives: Alan Bennett

The Habit of Art

reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 October

When does a poet or composer know when he has come to the end  of his powers? Is it the brain or the body which dictates the time? Does he just lay down his pen and opt for garnered laurels in a comfortable semi-retirement?

That’s the issue in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, a play within a play focusing on poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten at the end of their days. The fictional playwright has made Humphrey Carpenter (biographer of both Auden and Britten) into a framing device.

We’re in a typically chaotic rehearsal room Adrian Linford is the designer) with the stage manager standing in for the absentee director and the intense young author of Caliban’s Day increasingly paranoid about what the actors are doing with his carefully honed script.

Not only is the elderly actor playing Auden missing cues and needing endless prompts, but a couple of the younger cast members feel that they can bring more, much more, to the characters they play.

You can see why this is not one of Bennett’s most revived plays, but it rewards attention, as much as to what is unspoken as to what is actually said. Neither poet nor composer feel that their long-term partners (Kallman and Pears respectively) are as supportive as they want (or indeed, need).

The actors taking these parts, as well as the satellite cast, are equally dissatisfied in their individual ways. So Matthew Kelly’s superb Auden accepts his comfortable sinecure at Christ Church, Oxford while Fitz (the actor playing him) settles for supermarket voice-overs.

Donald, who takes the Carpenter rôle (John Wark), wants to build up his part. Auden’s rent-boy Stuart (Benjamin Chandler) feels that he also can add something to the production. Robert Mountford’s Neil, the playwright, just wants his script to be performed uncut with the emphases which he, not the director, dictates.

Trying to hold it all together are no-nonsense company stage manager Kay, to whom Veronica Roberts gives precisely the right combination of sympathy and authority and ASM George, played by Alexandra Guelff as a dogsbody with yearning to perform.

In the background until the second act is David Yelland’s Henry, playing Britten. He knows that Death in Venice will be his swan-song in many ways, a paean to vanished youth and the brightness of expectations. It’s a remarkable, unselfish performance, suggesting layers of masking as well as built-up sadness.

Director Philip Franks makes all Bennett’s tiers of make-belief and sadness credible for an audience which is not necessarily fully conversant with Auden’s or Britten’s work. You do need to concentrate, but that’s a good thing in the theatre. After all, all life’s a stage.

Four and a half-star rating.

The Habit of Art runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 13 October with matinées on 10 and 13 October. The tour also includes the Cambridge Arts Theatre (29 October-3 November) and the Palace Theatre, Westcliff (19-24 November).

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The Old Country

(reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 23 August)

Like Shakespeare, Alan Bennett has written several of what might be defined as “problem plays”. In Bennett’s case, one of the most intriguing of these is The Old Country, which I first saw in 1977, when the actual events and characters here depicted through fictional characters, were more of immediate concern that they seem in 2016.

We’re on the verandah of a small house in the depths of the country, just the sort of place to which you can imagine any senior Civil Servant wishing to retire. Hilary (James Morley) and his wife Bron (Barbara Horne) are expecting a visit from her sister Veronica (Imogen Slaughter) and her diplomat husband Duff (Michael Shaw); they haven’t seen the couple since Duff achieved his knighthood.

Hilary and Bron do have neighbours – Olga (Melissa Clements), who is somewhat mixed-up to put it at its most simple, and her husband Eric (Bob Dobson), on the face of it just a happy-go-lucky sort of chap. But where exactly is this place in the country? and why is it, its occupants and their visitors under such surveeliance?

Bennett uses the gradual relevations of both personal and national aspects to the different characters to allow for some complex discussion about motivations, treachery and patriotism, pasts to be revealed and those which so desperately need to be concealed. People, Bennett seems to insist, have flexible loyalties, fluid as changes in international situations and issues.

What Hilary wants is, in spite of the speeches which Morley delivers with great conviction, as nebulous as any other artificial construct. Shaw and Dobson make much of their revelatory encounter in the second act while Horne gives a rounded portrait of a wife who sticks by her man, but isn’t afriad to point out where he falls short of her deserts.

Veronica is a slightly spiky personality, and no-one does stylish spikiness more accurately than Slaughter. Olga is in many ways the most difficult of the characters to pin down; her past not simply permeates what and who she is now but underlies Hilary’s shockingly crude summing-up – one of those moments in the drama when you realise that sympathy can perhaps be wrongly placed. Clements epitomises the small fry as victim.

The Old Country runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 27 August and transfers to Southwold Summer Theatre between 29 August and 10 September.

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The History Boys

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 16 March).

If you’re an arts complex with professional actors as well as a thriving stage school attached, then Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is an ideal choice of production. As well as the adult staff members at the fictional boys’ school in the 1960s, there are the students – as mixed a bunch as you’re likely to encounter then, now or in the 1950s on which Bennett drew from his personal experiences.

Some of us were lucky enough to be taught by charismatic as well as dedicated teachers – I know that I was, though not by anyone quite as maverick as Hector. Matthew Ward makes him into less cuddly than some other actors’ characterisations; it’s as though he is deliberately courting disaster from our first glimpse of him, motorbike-revving as though he had just materialised from another planet.

Sue Last balances this with her straight-forwrd Mrs Lintott, a no-nonsense type who teaches efficiently but without ever stirring her students’ imaginations. Then there’s Jeremy Small’s Headmaster with his sights set on Oxbridge places. It’s a portrait of a man who lacks true authority.

As Irwin, parachuted in to polish the likely university candidates, Jack Downey offers a well thought-out portrait of a driven half-failure who knows what will work in certain circumstances and eventually manages to apply these lessons to his own career. Downey is flint to Ward’s fire, which is at it should be.

Jeanne Stacey’s production has a set by Douglas Heap which, with its simple foreground of school chairs and tables, keeps the action flowing. Of the boys, Joseph Vaiana’s brash Dakin, Joe Llewely’s Posner slowly coming to terms with his homosexual instincts, Will Edden’s chirpy Timms and Daniel Boulton’s bovine Rudge stand out.

The History Boys runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 19 March.

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Talking Heads

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 17 August)

Alan Bennett’s monologues grouped under the title Talking Heads introduces us to two very different women and a mother-fixated man. All three are set in their long-established ways; for each this rigid path leads to an almost-inevitable measure of self-destruction.

The interest lies in how the dénouement for each character we meet comes about. It has something of the inevitability of classical tragedy as we watch how a character trait, a personality flaw or just the sheer inability to accept that change does and will occur moulds each story. Yes, for the most part we can see what will happen – but Bennett has a whole hand of master-cards up his sleeve.

Sarah Esdaile’s production cannot escape the piece’s 1988 television roots, though her slightly fidgety staging keeps each person firmly in that period. Francis O’Connor’s sets, atmospherically lit by Paul Pyant, combine naturalism with a touch of distortion – just as Miss Ruddock, Doris and Graham themselves live in a world whose distortion is as much of their own making as that provided by outside events and people.

All three actors are perfectly cast, especially Siobhan Redmond as Miss Ruddock; the second part of her story is a revelation in more than one sense. Karl Theobald has the measure of Karl, teetering on the edge of infantilism as he gauges the outside world through low-level porn magazines and his distorted view of his mother and his relationship with her.

Stephanie Cole is hear-breaking as Doris, so determined to stay in her own, now loo large home and to resist any attempt to cajole her into the sort of residential care which she (most probably correctly) sees as a short cut to the cemetery. Too proud to accept or call for help in the right circumstances and at the right time, she learns that being mistress of her fate is not necessarily as empowering as it seems.

Talking Heads runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 22 August.

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The History Boys

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 6 July)

Sell A Door Theatre Company may be only six years but there’s no mistaking its maturity. Kate Saxon’s touring production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys emphasises this. One of Libby Watson’s trademark sets both defines the timelessness of the story of a class of boys in their final term before university and indicates (through understatement) its non-real aspects.

The core of any production of this play lies as much in the casting of the eight pupils as with the four teachers with whom we, as the audience, engage. Here the stand-out performances are those of Steven Roberts as Posner, the misfit Jewish boy who uses his innate ability to camp things up as a weapon as well as a shield, Sid Sagar as quiet but brilliant Akthar and Kedar Williams-Stirling as at-ease-in-his-black-skin Daykin.

Richard Hope brings something more complicated to the key role of Hector, charismatic maverick teacher befouled by his own weaknesses as well as strengths, all too eagerly exploited both by colleagues and students. Christopher Ettridge’s apparatchik of a headmaster, so brisk in jumping on Hector’s sexual fumblings while patently seeing nothing wrong in his own advances to his secretary, contrasts beautifully.

Then there’s Irwin, the man with his own secrets who has been brought in to groom the boys for Oxbridge entrance examinations and interviews. Mark Field makes him so tight-lipped and buttoned-up that we all but squirm, while accepting that his approach may not win hearts but can ensure university (not to mention media) success. Susan Twist is the no-nonsense Mrs Lintott, who believes in facts and dates but is so much warmer than any Gradgrind.

Top marks all round.

The History Boys runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 11 July.

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