Tag Archives: Alan Bennett

“Talking Heads” at the Bridge Theatre

Four out of eight… that’s not some strange rating for these shows, far from it, but the number I’ve managed to see in this series of Alan Bennett monologues. The tickets are reasonably priced, the staff on top of social distancing, and creative director Nicholas Hytner’s idea of bringing his lockdown TV shows to the stage (where they clearly belong) is a simply brilliant.

The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils

First up is Monica Dolan’s brilliant portrayal of a grieving widow. Learning about her husband’s life – after his death – her version of Clifford the bird watcher has to expand to include Cliff the biker. The Shrine is sensitive and often funny. It’s classic Bennett territory, with plenty of wry observation. And an important point about how individual bereavement is.

The accompanying piece has Lesley Manville’s turn as an “upstanding Anglican lady”. Battles with her husband the Vicar, and his fan club parishioners, start well. But does competitive flower arranging sit uncomfortably alongside the AA meetings the character ends up at? It’s Manville who makes the extramarital affair here seem something magical. Another performance not to miss. Both pieces are directed with a sure hand by Hytner.

The Hand of God & The Outside Dog

Another piece is also mostly noticeable for its performance. Did you ever imagine Kristen Scott Thomas could ‘do’ frumpy? The Hand of God is a touch predictable but, with an affecting melancholic air there’s no doubt this is another of Bennett’s strong characters. Playing a small-time antiques dealer, with humour coming from her snobbery, is a real achievement on Scott Thomas’s part.

More impressive – as the performance is excellent and the writing surprising – is The Outside Dog where Bennett moves to less familiar ground. A serial killer’s wife, a role Rochenda Sandall gets lots from, in a script that twists like a thriller. It’s plot driven but note its brevity. While the TV might drag a serial out of something like this (and we’ve all seen plenty on Netflix lately) Bennett and director Nadia Fall cram mystery, drama and emotion in a quarter of an hour – fantastic!

There are four more big stars to come – Lucian Msamati, Imelda Staunton, Tamsin Grieg and Maxine Peake – in two more double bills. This may be bite size theatre, but the season is a big achievement.

Until 31 October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Zach Harrison

“The Madness of George III” from NTLive

Another trip away from the South Bank this week, to the Nottingham Playhouse, means two places to donate to and reminds us of problems facing theatres nationwide during the Covid-19 lockdown. Alan Bennett’s play started at the National Theatre in 1991 and this revival, directed by Adam Penford towards the end of 2018, shows strong work outside the capital.

Penford approaches the piece with a disciplined hand. Although the title role is unquestionably a star part for Mark Gatiss, who does very well, each member of the cast gets a chance to shine. Gatiss has the King’s avuncular nature down to perfection (what a good gossip), and he makes his illness moving. The stuttering, frustrated efforts to communicate – fantastic writing from Bennett – are great.

George’s love match with Queen Charlotte is well conveyed with the help of Debra Gillett (although the off-and-on German accent could be tighter). Best of all is the appearance of Adrian Scarborough as the King’s physician Willis, who adds a good deal of tension. Many a show picks up when Scarborough walks on stage but, unfortunately, that feels especially true here.

Surprisingly, given Gatiss’ background in comedy, the play isn’t as funny as you might hope. There are too many lines wasted: telling the Prince Regent that style never immortalised anyone really should get a laugh. Instead, the play’s keen eye for politics seems to interest Penfold more.

Focusing on the power struggles behind the sick monarch is good news for Nicholas Bishop as “cold fish” Prime Minister Pitt and is, undoubtedly, interesting. But the plotting could be clearer and scenes in Parliament are pretty poor, despite some nice design from Robert Jones. Nonetheless, Bennett does well when he engages with history and Penford is smart to pick this up. If the author’s more romping moments are neglected, the play is clearly still in good shape.

Available until Wednesday 17 June 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

“The Habit of Art” from The Original Theatre Company

Just about to start a tour as theatres began closing due to coronavirus, this revival of Alan Bennett’s 2009 play was recorded at a closed performance on what should have been its opening night. With special thanks to those who made this happen, justly keen to show off their hard work, Philip Frank’s production makes an excellent case for the piece by carefully playing to its strengths.

Using the device of a play-within-a-play, an imaginary meeting of poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten is rehearsed by a none too happy cast and crew – full of the excitement and tension surrounding live performance we’re all missing so much at the moment. Franks does an excellent job with the behind-the-scenes feel – Adrian Linford’s design deserves credit, too – getting the most from Bennett’s comedy.

Right from the start, Veronica Roberts and Jessica Dennis, as the show’s stage managers, share Franks’ appreciation of Bennett’s humour. And taking the leads as those playing Auden and Britten respectively, Matthew Kelly and David Yelland do an expert job: their characters are a couple of old hams, as you might expect, hitting every aside perfectly. Of course, it’s a shame not to experience this live, as Bennett can really make an audience howl – and hearing just the laughter from a few crew members is a little sad. But nobody would miss this more than those on stage, and yet each joke still lands. Even better, lines are frequently tinged with a melancholic edge that shows deep appreciation of the text.

A wistfulness within The Habit of Art, coming primarily from the elderly characters – skilfully written and expertly conveyed here – becomes an unexpected problem. At this moment in time, the play shows its age to its detriment. Acknowledgement of Britten’s attraction to young boys, along with a male prostitute who features within the play being put on, sit uncomfortably with current concerns. It should be pointed out that Bennett wants these “boys of art” to be given some kind of due; but the argument for, and nature of, this acknowledgement feels confused and the issues passed over too lightly.

Such problems were clearly not at the forefront of Bennett’s mind when writing. Instead, concerns about creativity were the job at hand. Questioning sincerity and authenticity in ‘art’ and combing humanity with grandeur in the ‘artist’, both the historical subjects and Bennett’s own fictional creations are fully utilised. It’s a mix of high-falutin’ ideas and jokes about genitals that few could manage.

The balance is seen in the performances, too. While Kelly’s character struggles with his lines, he still manages to show what a pro he is, making Auden’s obsession with time very moving. Meanwhile, Yelland does a brilliant job of hinting at his character’s haunted past. No stranger to acclaim himself, this look at the great (if not so good) of ‘art’ could be cold and abstract. But Bennett, with the help of all in this skilful revival, makes it alive and vital. The habit referred to in the title focuses on the labour involved in making art. Here, that effort, while as thought provoking as intended, is made to seem both easy and enjoyable. And that’s a job well done.

Available at http://www.originaltheatre.com/

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Allelujah!” at the Bridge Theatre

In his 84th year, Alan Bennett has written his most topical and overtly political play yet. Set on a geriatric ward, this is a heartfelt appeal for the NHS in its anniversary year and a play that is as challenging as it is amusing. Using the term youthful as praise seems inappropriate, but the piece feels fresh and bold regardless of the average age of its cast and creatives.

Allelujah! is full of songs and fun. With a massive cast, of mainly elderly characters, there is a sense of studies rather than fully fledged personalities. The experienced ensemble does well and is always entertaining, but it is great lines rather than roles that allow the likes of Gwen Taylor and Jeff Rawle to shine. Bennett adds life by injecting frank remarks and some swearing. It’s a simple but effective move.
When it comes to those running the hospital, conditions improve. There’s still some flab and flat parts – Bennett’s long-time director Nicholas Hytner could have been stricter. But from the hospital’s incompetent chairman, an excellent performance from Peter Forbes, and the stalwart Sister Gilchrist, a role that Deborah Findlay is superb in, Bennett points out systemic problems and gives them dramatic impact.

Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett
Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett

Samuel Barnett plays another villain, a management consultant, and is joined by fellow former History Boy Sacha Dhawan as the appealing Dr Valentine. The pair are polar opposites – indeed a story about migration feels a touch tagged on – but both do well to make Bennett’s blunt approach work. By the time we get to the plot twist, the whole atmosphere is appropriately spirited – nothing exercises emotions like the NHS.

The sensational storyline might be criticised in a younger writer. Given his pedigree, it seems safe to say that Bennett is aware of any potential drawbacks. Throwing a lot of subtlety to the wind, he joins the often reviled group of angry old men. And good for him. Allelujah! becomes hectoring towards the end; the patients’ patriotic singalong seems jolly enough, but there is little hope or glory around. Yet the anger here is salutary, Bennett wants to shake us up and, as a result, his play is a surprise.

Until 29 September 2018

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Madness of George III” at the Apollo Theatre

It seems we love the Royals right now. What with last year’s wedding and the forthcoming jubilee, there’s a feelgood factor about pageantry that our first family is riding high on. It’s well known that the Windors aren’t big theatregoers, which is a shame since they will probably miss this new production of The Madness of George III.

Alan Bennett’s 1991 textbook play, dealing with one of George III’s periods of mental breakdown (probably from the hereditary condition of porphyria), has aged superbly. Progressing from the Theatre Royal Bath, this production is highly polished. Against the backdrop of Janet Bird’s intelligent design, Christopher Luscombe’s direction is clear and pacey. While lacking satirical bite, the politics of the period are presented well, with fine performances from Nicholas Rowe and Gary Oliver as Parliamentary rivals William Pitt and Charles James Fox using the Royal family as pawns to gain power.

And Bennett’s gags about the parlous state of 18th-century medicine still shine. Peter Pacey plays the King’s first doctor with suitable sycophancy. Clive Francis is commendable as the radical physician Dr Willis whose techniques reveal the ridiculous dangers of court protocol (such as not being allowed to question the King directly) and who gets the play’s best line: “the state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier.”

The role of George III is a dream for any leading man. David Haig lustily rises to the challenge of bettering Nigel Hawthorne’s much loved representation in the 1994 film. Haig is best at showing us the King as a likeable character: the benevolent ‘farmer’ George whose “indirect and infinite curiosity” annoys his equerries but charms the audience.

Often, if you are rich, you aren’t mad – just eccentric. So Haig works hard to convince us that George losing his mind isn’t just quaint but something painful. His performance forces this point home. We can smile when the King says he would rather go to Japan than Kew, but portraying George as an intelligent man, aware of his own tragedy is Haig’s main achievement, making this a more moving evening than you might expect.

Until 31 March 2012

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Robert Day

Written 24 January 2012 for The London Magazine