DramaNorth WestReview

The Habit of Art – The Lowry, Salford

Writer: Alan Bennett

Director: Philip Franks

Reviewer: Abbie Rippon

‘Why must a play be such a performance?’ argues Neil, the writer of Caliban’s Day. The cast are rehearsing for an upcoming production which explores the life of WH Auden and his collaborations with Benjamin Britten, and The Habit of Art is the play within which this play falls. Confused yet? Don’t be. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the witty analysis exploring what it is to put on a theatrical production.

Famed for his analysis of the human character, Bennett’s 2009 play The Habit of Art uses the concept of the play-within-a-play to give his audience a real insight into the lives of the characters on stage. Neil, played by Robert Mountford, has written a play about WH Auden. Using Auden’s body of works and his reflections on recorded interviews of Auden, Neil has his developed his idea of the story he wants to tell about the writer. Conversely, Fitz (Matthew Kelly) is the actor playing Auden, he has his feelings about how the writer should be portrayed in action. Henry, played by David Yelland, is performing as the composer Benjamin Brittan and reflects with some subjectivity on how Britten’s life has many parallels to his own.

The conversations, arguments, ideas and reasoning brought forth from such a melting pot are fascinating to watch. This is what Alan Bennet does best. He draws you in with his innate ability to put into words what it is to be human.

Directed by Phillip Franks, the cast of seven slip in and of the world of the play seamlessly, arguing its points, and we, the audience, leave the theatre feeling informed, enlightened, and entertained. Yelland’s portrayal of Tim (and his performance of Britten) is thoughtful, subtle and engaging; Kelly transforms the ‘luvy’ Fitz into an obsessive, dissatisfied Auden; and one see’s the difficulties John Wark’s character Donald has as he tries, unsuccessfully, to find his character Henry Carpenter. The Company Stage Manager Kay, played by Veronica Roberts, plays her peacekeeping role well-balancing attitude with reassurance and she tends to the fragile egos in this room full of creative types. Her protégé and ASM George (Alexandra Guelff) is relatable, endearing and allows the audience to see the learning process of one early on in their theatrical career.

Set in an old church hall, engulfed in the rehearsal process, Adrian Lindford’s design looks as if it comes straight out of a rehearsal studio. Cluttered, half put together but with everything in its place. With costumes of 2018, plus the additions you might need in rehearsal (and old cardigan, leather jacket and the occasional more obscure item) the design is like a slice of real, if theatrical, life.

This is one of those productions where an audience can just sit and enjoy the stories and debates taking place in front of them. It’s clever without being overcomplicated and thought-provoking without having to shove ideas down your throat. It might not change the world but it will certainly present you with an enjoyable evening.

Runs until Saturday 17 November 2018 | Image: Helen Maybanks

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. 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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