BWW Review: THE HABIT OF ART, Richmond Theatre
The Habit of Art is a wonderfully funny and deeply moving revival of Alan Bennett's fantastic 2009 follow up to The History Boys. The play focuses on a fictional meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in 1972, when Britten seeks out his old friend to combat his loneliness and ask advice about his new composition of Death in Venice. This meeting is framed as a play within a play where rehearsals are taking place; aged thesps Fitz and Henry play Auden and Britten respectively, musing on life, ageing, sex and art.
The play is an exploration of the artists and their art, but also explores the characters of the actors playing the roles in the rehearsed play. In anyone other writer's hands, the result could be either confusing or pretentious, but it is wonderfully balanced and infused with Bennett's typical wit and dry humour. The first act in particular is hilarious and Director Philip Franks makes sure every line is exposed and enjoyed.
Despite great success, there is deep loneliness within the lives of the two men. Their homosexuality is a defining force and has caused them much anguish and heartache. Auden is honest and open about his predilections and the preferences of gay men whereas Britten is almost embarrassed and reluctant to admit any feelings. His love for young boys is portrayed more like a distant admiration for their beauty, rather than being put into any physical action. The humour around this often verges on being filthy, but is never gratuitous. It is also creates thoughtful and moving discussion between the pair.
Matthew Kelly is fantastic as Auden, throaty, coarse and verbose in an old bobbly cardigan. He is incredibly convincing as frustrated old man who likes the sound of his own voice too much, has a penchant for rent boys and prefers to pee in a sink. His version of Fitz is equally impressive: brash and loud with an ego to match.
David Yelland's Britten is a more nervous character against the bravura of Auden; he cannot sit still, constantly adjusting his jacket lapel and shirt cuffs. Yelland is gentle, charming and incredibly likeable, especially as the straight-laced Henry.
There are no weak links in the rest of the cast. Veronica Roberts is fantastic as soothing Stage Manager Kay, massaging giant egos and trying to hold everything together when the director is held up in Leeds. John Wark is amusingly pathetic as Donald, the luvvie actor desperately trying to find his motivation as biographer Humphrey Carpenter. Benjamin Chandler is also very good as Tim, who plays thoughtful rent boy Stuart.
Adrian Linford's realistic design reflects a typical rehearsal space with tea tray, strip lighting, boxes piled haphazardly and fire exit signs. It cleverly looks as though you are observing a rehearsal space in the theatre itself.
This is a delightful revival of a very funny and thought-provoking play. More of the same please Richmond!
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks