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Bennett in Brighton – The Habit of Art

Catch the excellent Matthew Kelly and David Yelland in Alan Bennett's play-within-a-play in Brighton this week

Alan Bennett is always a treat. If there were a Desert Island Discs for theatre/TV his Talking Heads monologues would feature in mine.

Now his clever, comic play The Habit of Art is on its first tour since its National Theatre debut back in 2009 and Brighton’s Theatre Royal has it early in the run, this Tues 11 – Sat 15 Sept.

Picture by Helen Maybanks

The story concerns an imagined reunion between poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten (Wystan and Benjy to each other), and the man who wrote both their biographies, but it is much more than that. It’s a play within a play, so we get the action around the set as actors and playwright clash during a rehearsal.

Picture by Helen Maybanks

It stars Matthew Kelly and David Yelland – yes, the former is the one from Stars in Your Eyes but, boy, that guy can act. Having seen him in a play a couple of years back, and spent much of it with my jaw dropped open at how good he was, I was looking forward to seeing him again. He didn’t disappoint. He’s wonderful as the elderly WH Auden slobbing about in an oversized jumper with snotty hanky hanging from the pocket, lazily peeing in the sink of his Oxford University rooms.

Picture by Helen Maybanks

Yelland’s Britten is, by contrast, slick and clipped and his more relaxed actor counterpart has some of the funniest lines as he reveals helpful character building detail about rent boys he has learned from ‘friends.’

I was worried I didn’t know enough about the two famous men but that wasn’t a problem as little prior knowledge is assumed and a lot of the entertainment is drawn from character clashes and egos.

Picture by Helen Maybanks

You can see Bennett sending up the insecurities and pretentions of both the professionals he has worked with and himself in the tension between the playwright (still scribbling on set) and the cast.

The actors wince at the more experimental scenes; clockwatch (there’s a lucrative Tesco voiceover gig for ‘Auden’ get to), or rail against their meagre parts: “I’m just a device, aren’t I?”  Meanwhile the stage manager flatters and smoothes everyone’s ego.

I was impressed by Alexandra Guelff who has a relatively small part as the assistant stage manager but who deftly switches accents and styles as she multi-tasks on and off set – even singing beautifully as a stand-in choir boy.

Alexandra Guelff, second left. Picture by Helen Maybanks

The rent boy actually has a fairly big part (no pun intended). The play is set in 1972 so homosexuality, though legal, is still mostly undercover. Auden and Britten, who both had long term same-sex partners, discuss this with each other and with Auden’s ‘gentleman caller’.

Facts and actual words on the public record from Auden and Britten are included in the internal play, we’re told, so, for instance, it was interesting to learn of Auden’s obsession with time keeping, down to an allotted slot for fun with the rent boy. Quite ironic for a man who penned the famous (thanks partly to Four Weddings and a Funeral) line “stop all the clocks…”

Neither the play, nor indeed the rent boy’s activities, builds to an exciting climax, this is more of a thoughtful piece, sad in parts but with plenty of laughs and classic Bennett sideswipes along the way.

The Habit of Art is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Sat 15 Sept 2018. Tickets are from £16.90

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