Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Habit of Art, York Theatre Royal - Wednesday 5th September 2018

Matthew Kelly and David Yelland, The Habit of Art
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

Alan Bennett's revived play, The Habit of Art, make its first stop at York Theatre Royal, before embarking on a national tour.  This joint presentation, by York Theatre Royal, The Original Theatre Company and Ghost Light Theatre Production stars Matthew Kelly, well known for presenting Stars in Their Eyes on television and David Yelland, a well established actor.

Under the direction of Philip Franks, it is known as a play within a play and the cleverly arranged "fixed" staging which welcomes one to the audience, courtesy of Adrian Linford, gives this impression.  The play rehearsed, Caliban's Day, is about a fictional meeting between two intriguing but legendary artists; the poet, W.H. Auden (Fitz (Kelly) and the composer, Benjamin Britten (Henry (Yelland) which takes place in the early 1970s and before their deaths.

Amid all this they are backed by supporting actors Stuart (Tim (Benjamin Chandler) and Humphrey Carter (Donald (John Wark) and also the creative crew of Kay, company stage manager, (Veronica Roberts) and George, assistant stage manager, (Alexandra Guelff) and the playwright, Neil (Robert Mountford).  In the director's absence the cast rehearse with a re-run of Caliban's Day and all share chaotically and farcically how the play should, in their minds, run.

The main characters, Auden and Britten, are explored with their contrasting personalities.  Auden, outspoken and crude with his suggestive innuendos and Britten, who somewhat has a more reserved diplomatic demeanour, is mysterious and intriguing with what he shares.  The ambiguity and tongue in cheek is Bennett's playwright hallmark however his writing style allows for key themes to be explored including sexuality, loneliness, dealing with demands of their art including friendship and rivalry, and subsequently death. Such themes were then somewhat more complex taking in account the societal attitudes at the peak of their lives especially sexuality and how they had to live with risks of social isolation and marginalisation. 

The Habit of Art has no specific plot but instead an insight into two unique artists of the 20th Century and an opportunity for the audience to interpret and appreciate what is being presented on stage.  The conclusion is left open to interpretation and for anyone to add towards its notion.  The production is entertaining as well as reflective and put well together by an excellent cast led by Kelly and talented creative and production teams.

Reviewed by Dawn Smallwood 
Playing until 8th September 2018