York Theatre Royal, The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Productions bring us yet another exciting offering: Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art.
The plot seems complex at first, but it really is rather simple and, in fact, quite intriguing: playwright Neil (played beautifully by Robert Mountford as he accurately portrays all of the artistic frustrations of any writer) has written Caliban’s Day: a play about poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten’s friendship. Caliban’s Day focuses on their senior years, when W H Auden was far from majestic. His flat is filthy and he’s always p**sing in the sink, let alone promptly scheduling rent boys – painting a grim picture of the poet we know and respect. Same goes for Britten, as Bennett (or, rather Neil) showcases him as a rather unhappy homosexual with an inappropriate penchant for young boys. I can’t help but feel Bennet wanted to write a whole play about Britten and/or Auden, but knew he didn’t have quite enough material to make it fly.
The actors rehearsing for Caliban’s Day are as interesting as the characters in Caliban’s Day. We have the cantankerous old Fitz playing Auden (our delightful Matthew Kelly), a veteran actooooor who bumbles his way through his lines and has a personality as vibrant as the parts he plays. Kelly portrays Fitz perfectly, imposing a hilariously drole presence throughout. Frankly, without his dry humour and witty asides, I don’t think the play would be as successful.
That’s not to say the rest of the cast aren’t strong. David Yelland plays actor Henry (who is cast as Benjamin Britten in Caliban’s Day), distinguishing his on and off-stage characters brilliantly. The two main actors are assisted by Company Stage Manager Kay (played with moments of poignancy yet energy throughout by Veronica Roberts, who chivvies the play along) and Assistant Stage Manager George (Alexandra Guelff).
The play is expertly directed by Philip Franks, who turns a potentially mind-numbingly dull play about nothing much into a vibrant, funny glimpse into a new perspective of Auden and Britten. The play is a play about talking – and to make that interesting is incredibly tough, so hats off to all involved (including designer Adrian Linford, who captures the essence of a rehearsal room perfectly).
If nothing else, I learnt a little something about Auden and Britten, two pretty iconic figures. But trust me, there was loads to admire about this production, including incredible acting from a top notch cast led by the remarkable Mr Kelly.
Tonight, Matthew, I am thoroughly impressed.
Catch The Habit of Art at York Theatre Royal until 8th September before the show goes on tour to a theatre (hopefully) very near you!
Photography credited to Helen Maybanks