Tag Archives: Matthew Kelly

“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

“Lend Me A Tenor: The Musical” at the Gielgud Theatre

A musical farce is a tricky thing to pull off, but Lend Me A Tenor shows us how it’s done. The book is the important thing. Based on the play by Ken Ludwig, Peter Sham’s adaptation of a star tenor’s guest performance is as simple as a farce is able to be. Confused love affairs, disguises, behind-the-scenes dramas and onstage shenanigans at a Midwestern opera house are combined with ease and plenty of laughs.

Sham’s lyrics are a model of clarity and hilarity. And if it takes guts to rhyme the name Tito with “indeed-o” then it pays off. Brad Carroll’s intelligently nostalgic score is easy on the ear. So what if you can see the mechanics? It works.

Despite the manic action (with the doors on Paul Farnsworth’s impressive set naturally getting a satisfactory amount of slamming), Ian Talbot’s direction seems effortless. With this cast, he can afford to be confident – Lend Me A Tenor has plenty of experience on stage and it really shows.

Matthew Kelly takes the role of Henry Saunders, harassed opera impresario, in his stride. Michael Matus is the star singer with a believably great voice and the kind of Italian accent you only get on stage. This team knows there is only one thing funnier than an outrageous accent… another character faking an outrageous accent. Stepping into the tenor’s shoes is Damian Humbley as mild-mannered Max, who gets the show’s big tune, ‘Be Yourself’, just as he is going onstage to masquerade as the divo.

With its female leads, Lend Me A Tenor, also excels. Maggie (Cassidy Janson) is our ingénue, and the opera’s resident diva Diana DiVane (Sophie-Louise Dann) is the “not so ingen-new”. Both are infatuated with Tito the tenor for romantic and professional reasons: Maggie wants to borrow him for a fling before she settles down, leading to the show’s romantic title tune, DiVane sees him as a kind of bridging loan to the Met and has a show-stopping ‘audition’ number. The superb Joanna Riding plays Tito’s long-suffering wife with delightful comic timing.

This cast is so strong that the performers might seem somewhat wasted; it’s an enviable position for any production to be in. But a musical needs more – that special something that critics are loath to describe as ‘heart’, and Lend Me A Tenor is such an enchanting piece that it’s clearly in credit.

Until 6 August 2011

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 1 July 2011 for The London Magazine

“Sign of the Times” at the Duchess Theatre

Humour and sentiment can be an uncomfortable mix. The secret of Tim Firth’s successful career, from Neville’s Island to the recent Calendar Girls, is that he combines them so well. Sign of the Times shows off this talent on an intimate scale – its heartwarming stuff with plenty of laughs.

Matthew Kelly plays Frank, Director of Installations at a sign manufacturer who is given the added responsibility of looking after Alan (Gerard Kearn) who is on work experience. Like many an intern, Alan is getting a raw deal here – he wanted work experience on the set of Emmerdale but instead is stuck on top of an office roof with a bore.

This is a comedy about a generation gap with the age-old twist of who is actually learning most from whom. Young Alan’s creativity strikes a chord with the older man, who is a frustrated writer. No matter how bad the spy thrillers he dictates during breaks are, we are touched by the sincerity of his efforts – he has a “burning burn” to write and who can argue with that! And the inspiration to do more with his life comes at the perfect time – the sign they are currently erecting spells out the end of his career.

Three years later, the roles are reversed. Alan is now the eager Trainee Assistant Deputy Manager explaining Frank’s new job to him with corporate mnemonics ripe for satire. It’s Frank’s turn to inspire and remind the youth of the courage he once had, saving him from electrocution along the way.

Sign of the Times started as a one-act play and there are moments when Firth’s extension seems contrived. Frank’s story reminds us that postponing retirement age entails problems, but that isn’t where the strength of the story really lies.

Firth writes great characters and in Sign of the Times they get the performances they deserve. Kelly is fully in control of the stage, charming even when pompous and endearing in his enthusiasm, and Kearns (who may be recognised from Shameless) makes a great West End debut. Both actors are spot on with their comic timing and make Sign of the Times well worth seeing.

Until 28 May 2011

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 14 March 2011 for The London Magazine