The Habit of Art – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Writer: Alan Bennett

Director: Philip Franks

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Neil has meticulously researched his latest play, Caliban’s Day, in which he imagines a meeting between poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in 1973, shortly before the death of each and at the time Britten was writing Death in Venice. Today, the director can’t make it so the rehearsal will be led by Kay, the Company Stage Manager, with Neil attending. Among the company are theatrical stalwarts, Fitz (playing Auden) and Henry (playing Britten), together with Donald playing Humphrey Carpenter who would later write biographies of both men, as well as lesser characters – Tim, a keen and up-and-coming actor playing a rent boy engaged by Auden, and George, the hard-working assistant stage manager.

This structure does give an insight to those of us who don’t frequent rehearsal rooms of the characters that inhabit them. Fitz is the master technician but who struggles to remember all his lines; Henry is smooth, professional and line-perfect. Donald, having researched Carpenter, is struggling to find his voice as he perceives him to be little more than a plot device to add exposition and explanation at times. Kay and George are straightforward, no-nonsense characters who willingly fulfil their rôles in the production and try to keep the warring egos at bay. Neil is by turns pleased and appalled at the way his work has been moulded by the company and the director, including cuts and acerbic comments from some cast members about some of his decisions – a sequence in which Auden’s furniture speaks to the audience being a notable example.

Neil’s play is, indeed, meticulously researched, as he is keen to point out when the cast questions aspects of his script, also ensuring we understand how well Bennett has done his own research, of course.

And Bennett’s trademarks are present in The Habit of Art, not least lines of dry humour and wit that also serve to underscore the frailties and foibles of the characters – in this case on the two levels of actual character as well as those written by Neil. So one does suddenly find one’s inner dialogue silenced as an aspect of a character is suddenly allowed to appear among the witty dialogue, for example when Henry discusses some of his own experiences as a student at RADA, thinly disguised as those of a ‘friend’. So Bennett’s structure is indeed interesting in adding a layer to our experience while simultaneously allowing us to laugh gently at some of Neil’s excesses and the anxieties of some of the cast in Caliban’s Day. It’s not entirely clear why Bennett should decide to tell his story of this meeting second-hand, as it were, but the device works well enough and gives some insight into the creative process as well as its outcome.

Central are the characters of Fitz (Matthew Kelly) and Henry (David Yelland), supported by the angst-ridden Donald (John Wark). Each inhabits his rôle completely, with Kelly bringing cantankerous glee to Fitz while Yelland portrays Henry’s professionalism well, while also showing us the thinness of that veneer at times. Wark is delightfully insecure as Donald, never sure whether he’s an actual present character or merely a plot device. Donald’s suggestions to make Carpenter more three-dimensional serve provide some of the humour in the second act. Robert Mountford effectively demonstrates Neil’s frustrations from the director and cast’s cavalier approach to his text.

Holding the rehearsal together are Kay, whom Veronica Roberts ensures we see as a benevolent dictator, and the cheerful George (Alexandra Guelff).

Director Philip Franks ensures both the humour and pathos are able to land, while Adrian Linford’s cluttered set evokes well the rehearsal room atmosphere.

This play is a gentle romp through the interplay of personalities finding their way, both the characters in The Habit of Art and those in Caliban’s Day. There are few laugh-out-loud or heart-rending moments, rather nods of appreciation and recognition of character traits. It’s not earth-shattering, but it is a thought-provoking, even educational, evening out. Original Theatre Company has done a good job reviving this play which goes a long way towards meeting their aims to ensure high-quality theatre is accessible to all.

Runs Until 10 November 2018 and on tour  | Image: Helen Maybanks

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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