Tag Archives: Philip Franks

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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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2018

Flare Path

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 28 September)

Getting the on-stage nuances right for any historical period is a triple effort, shared between director (Justin Audibert in this case), designer (Hayley Grindle) and – above all – the cast. Rattigan’s 1942 drama Flare Path takes place in the lounge of a hotel near an airfield, from which bomber and fighter pilots take off for their nightly flights over Germany. It’s a mission from which far too many will never return.

The officers and senior crew members use it as a sort of club, an alternative to the cramped messes and briefing-rooms of the station. Wives also take up residence, both short- and long-term, to snatch a few precious days with their menfolk. Enter a film star, predatory cockerel in this hen-roost, though with his intentions aimed purely at one particular resident.

This is where the production lets itself down somewhat. Leon Ockenden fails to radiate the tinsel-town alpha male glamour of Peter Kyle – think Clark Gable or Errol Flynn – of the expatriate leading man who is seeing his studio’s reliance on his box-office drawing powers fading rapidly. The girl he wants is actress Patricia Warren (Olivia Hallinan), with whom he has had a passionate on-off affair and who is now married to Fl Teddy Graham (Alastair Whatley, the artistic director of production company Original Theatre).

Whatley makes much of his second-act admission to the terrible effect which the bombing raids are having on him, both for the physical danger he encounters and through the regular loss of men who have become more than usually close comrades. I was less convinced by Hallinan’s posturing; one never quite believed in the character as an actress or in her obvious appeal to two such very different men.

The smaller rôles are well taken, notably by Siobhan O’Kelly as Doris, the barmaid now married to a Polish count who lost his original family to the Nazis and is, understandably, focussed on revenge. Simon Darwen’s Sgt Miller, Philip Franks’ Sq Ldr Swanson and Adam Best’s Count Skriczevinsky are also well-rounded portraits of people as well as of types.

Hayley Grindle’s costumes look right for the clothes and uniforms of the period and her sts is an effective blend of naturalism and symbolism. The central acting area gives us the by now slightly battered lounge, backed by an enormous red-curtained window and with a realistic fire in the footlights-level hearth. But this isn’t a box set, such as Rattigan would have envisaged for the original prodction. Instead it’s flanked by a suggestion of twisted, blackened metal and a bare-branched tree. Dominic Bilkey’s soundscape is almost frighteningly three-dimensional as the aircraft take off – but don’t always land successfully.

Flare Path continues at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 3 October. It also plays at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich between 19 and 24 October and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff from 16 to 21 November.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015