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Review: The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett, The Original Theatre Company, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until October 13

PUBLISHED: 14:42 09 October 2018

Matthew Kelly & David Yelland as WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art at the New Wolsey Theatre Photo: Helen Maybanks

Matthew Kelly & David Yelland as WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art at the New Wolsey Theatre Photo: Helen Maybanks

Archant

Playwright Alan Bennett must be a kindly man. He’s certainly sympathetic and very forgiving of human frailties. He understands people and for proof of this you need look no further than his play The Habit of Art which is currently dazzling audiences not only with its wit and sharp dialogue but its understanding of our flaws as human beings.

The plot, which is largely incidental, concerns itself with a fictional late-in-life meeting between two old friends WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. In reality Britten and Auden had a major falling out shortly after the Second World War and never spoke again but in Bennett’s world they have a meeting in Auden’s rooms at Oxford in 1972 while Britten is wrestling with the score and libretto to his final opera Death in Venice and seeks his old friend’s advice.

Bennett frames this meeting as a play within a play (or more accurately a play within a rehearsal) as the action takes place in a cluttered church hall, laid out as a rehearsal space and Auden, superbly realised by Matthew Kelly and Britten, elegantly brought to life by David Yelland, are really actors Fitz and Henry trying to get their heads round a new play about Auden and Britten by highly strung playwright Neil.

This device allows Bennett, the real world playwright, to comment on the lives of his subjects and on the sensibilities of actors in an entertaining but truthful fashion.

Matthew Kelly as WH Auden in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art at the New Wolsey Theatre Photo: Helen MaybanksMatthew Kelly as WH Auden in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art at the New Wolsey Theatre Photo: Helen Maybanks

Although, the play chronicles the meeting of two cultural giants Matthew Kelly’s Auden forms the focus of the piece with Britten’s more buttoned up figure being used as a contrast to the cliché of the gay artist.

Matthew Kelly delivers a bravura performance as the temperamental Fitz and the astonishingly crumpled Auden. Bennett puts 80% of the plays dialogue in Fitz’s mouth and Kelly relishes the opportunity to show what he can do, slipping effortlessly between the two challenging personalities.

David Yelland’s urbane Britten and the quieter Henry provides a revealing look at the contrasting personalities of the two men and hints at the secrets of Henry’s own past. Britten’s relationship with the people of Aldeburgh also comes in for scrutiny.

David Yelland as Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art at the New Wolsey Theatre Photo: Helen MaybanksDavid Yelland as Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art at the New Wolsey Theatre Photo: Helen Maybanks

Director Philip Franks keeps things moving at a fast pace, nothing is allowed to linger too long, but he still allows the rhythms of Bennett’s distinctive dialogue to shine through. As with all Alan Bennett’s work his facility to marshall entertaining lines of dialogue masks a touching and at times tragic look at the fragility of artistic genius.

Alongside Kelly and Yelland, Veronica Roberts commands the audience’s attention as the put upon company stage manager who acts as peacemaker as relations between actors and playwright become increasingly strained.

It’s a glorious production from Bury-based touring company Original Theatre Company – catch it while you can. It’s a bittersweet triumph.

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