Tag Archives: Matthew Kelly

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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Pride and Prejudice

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 27 September)

Deorah Bruce’s revival for the Regent’s Park Theatre of her original 2013 production is now on an autumn tour. The script, which weaves much of Jane Austen’s dialogue with some excellent pastiche, is the one by Simon Reade; dramatist and director keep the action fast-moving, thanks to Max Jones’ flexible, revolving set which involves Regency-style metalwork and a staircase (the more athletic cast members have their own shortcuts with this.

Costumes are by Tom Piper, and in period, though I did feel that neither Mr Bingley (Jordan Mifsúo) nor Mr Darcy (Benjamin Holloway) would have committed the solecism of wearing boots in a ballroom. Mrs Bennet ((Felicity Montagu) begins the play with what must be one of the most famous opening lines in all English-language literature and rounds it off at the end with a reprise.

The cast includes a number of professional débuts; Anna Crichlow as Kitty Bennet and Georgina Darcy), Hollie Edwin as Jane – making the eldest sister into something more than just meek and attractive – and Kirsty Rider as a waspish Caroline Bingley. Matthew Kelly is Mr Bennet (more on the cuddly than the caustic spectrum). Montagu has most of the audience on her side from the beginning.

She is however a figure of fun; Steven Meo’s Mr Collins tips over into the grotesque with his obsequeousness towards Lady Catherine (Doňa Croll) and her nephew. One does feel that Carlotte Lucas (Francesca Bailey) will end up just as much of a domestic tyrant as Lady Catherine. Daniel Abbott plays Mr Wickham, that untrustworthy smiler, well matched by Mari Izzard’s feckless Lydia.

Music and dancing were key elements of social intercourse in the Regency period. Some of this, for the keyboard, is a little too obviously pre-recorded with the sound not quite balanced; the original music is by Lillian Henley. Siân Williams has devised some neat choreography for the dances with occasional frozen-action moments to allow us to concentrate on the Elezabeth-Darcy confrontations.

Tafline Steen is a delightful Elizabeth, a girl who cares for her sister’s distress, recognises her father’s weaknesses as well as his strengths and who never quite lets her tongue run away with her opinions to breach decorum. Holloway’s Darcy has an air of Byronic brooding as wel as a in-born hauteur, so that his impassioned and ill-phrased declaration to Elizabeth really makes an impact. Reserve, just like outspokenness imposes its own limits.

Pride and Prejudice runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 1 October with matinéeson 29 September and 1 October. It transfers to the Corn Exchange, Cambridge for the week 4 to 8 October.

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Toast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 29 February)

All trades have their own peculiar vocabulary. Richard Bean’s Toast, set in a Humberside bread-making factory in the 1970s, is no exception. Bean has based his wry comedy on his own early work experience. This new tour is directed by Eleanor Rhode

James Turner’s set presents us with the rest room where the under-paid men doing boring, repetitive jobs spin out their breaks as far as management allows (and quite a bit further). It’s a weekend night shift, so the bosses are elsewhere; Colin (Will Barton) who somehow manages to combine the oles of union shop steward and stand-in for director Mr Beckett is nominally in charge.

The workers are a motley bunch. There’s Cecil (Simon Greenall) whose physical and verbal banter with his colleagues has a barbed edge and Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) who knows he’s in a dead-end but also that there’s no comfortable way ut of it. Above all there’s old timer Walter (Matthew Kelly), known to the other as Nellie and definitely living on borrowed time.

A student appears – is he just a temporary pair of hands who needs to be shown what to do or is he on a fact-finding mission? Or is he ondeed a student at all? John Wark gives a nicely nuanced study of the fish out of too many different waters. But the play belongs to Kelly, in his detailed characterisation of an old man who knows that he’s a failure yet clings to the vaguest shred of hope that he can still be useful.

Sound designer Max Pappenheim has created a ground-bass of the off-stage ovens, the sound of instrusive noise to which the ear accustoms itself so that the audience, just as the bakers, only notice it when things go drastically wrong. Which they inevitably do. Twice.

Toast runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 5 March with matinées on 2 and 5 March. It also plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge between 28 March and 2 April.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2016