Tag Archives: Veronica Roberts

“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

“The Daughter-in-Law” at the Arcola Theatre

For fans of DH Lawrence the chance to see one of his seldom performed plays is unmissable. So everyone should fight for a ticket to this fascinating family drama of an overbearing mother and a marital breakdown. The work dates from 1913, but didn’t receive a premiere until Peter Gill’s season dedicated to the author at the Royal Court in 1967. The gap in time might be understandable, as Lawrence’s naturalism would have alienated audiences for a long time, but that this strong play isn’t a rep regular is great shame.

The script’s dialogue might daunt some companies and audience members. Faithfully replicating the speech of Lawrence’s home town of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, these are – literally – voices from another time. Expertly coached by Penny Dyer, it is to director Jack Gamble and his cast’s credit that, despite the number of colloquialisms, the action is intelligible. The accents and archaic constructions fix us firmly in a different time and place. As an act of linguistic archaeology, it’s a remarkable achievement. Oh, and the sound is also intoxicatingly beautiful.

The dialogue itself is also stunning. The sentiments may be far removed from our own time, but not a line spoken is incongruous and the piece flows marvellously, ensuring the play works as engrossing drama. The Gascoyne boys, one living at home and the other battled over by wife and mother, cut sorry figures. This is toxic masculinity from the turn of the century. It’s testament to a charismatic Matthew Biddulph, as Joe, and an impressively understated Harry Hepple, as Luther, that they hold our interest. But it’s the women – the boys’ mother, and Luther’s wife Minnie – who captivate. The men are just children, their petulance a fantastic source of tension.

Matthew Biddulph and Veronica Roberts
Matthew Biddulph and Veronica Roberts

Arguing for Lawrence as any kind of feminist is beyond my ability. His views on sexuality were too, let’s say, idiosyncratic. Gamble presents the author in all his occasionally bizarre complexity, including suggestions of domestic violence and odd views on keeping house. But there’s no doubting the power of the women as he has written them here. Veronica Roberts gives a stunning performance as mother Gascoyne, as formidable a matriarch as you could wish for. Ever sensitive to class, Lawrence writes former governess Minnie, who has married into the close family, as a shrew at first, before evolving her into a demanding, sensual character, fully realised by Ellie Nunn. A series of electric confrontations with Minnie as catalyst are written with such authenticity, and produced here with such care and attention, that the play transports us back in time.

Until 23 June 2018


Photos by Idil Sukan