Which is odd, really, when you think about it: the combination of a play by national treasure Alan Bennett with Alison Steadman and the son of a Doctor Who (David Troughton) leading the cast would seem to be irresistible fodder to the average Whinger.
What took them so long? Was it the subject matter? Would watching an ageing partnership (one slipping into senility, the other infirm) prove uncomfortable viewing? Did Andrew sense that it might be depressing rather than entertaining to witness a possible future tending to Phil’s needs by massaging immobile limbs and reminding him when to pee.
Or was the real reason behind their tardiness the fact that there are no offers for Enjoy and no day seats and it is not reliably available on the half price ticket booth?
But all was not lost. Andrew’s ego having been inflated by the cornucopia of free, reserved seating which has been waved in the faces of the Whingers by fringe theatres of late, he determined to assert the Whingers’ new-found imaginary credentials on the press office for Enjoy.
After several days and numerous un-returned phone calls someone from Arthur Leone finally caved in to Andrew’s barrage of spam emails:
Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings but I’m afraid our comp allocation for this show is at full now – it has proven phenomenally popular and is now the highest grossing Alan Bennett in the West End on advance sales so I’m sure you can appreciate we have to hold back on the comps.
In other words, “It’s selling out. We’re a hit – we don’t want you“.
Andrew was forced to take an uncharacteristically tough stance: “Let’s go and see it at the end of the run – that’ll show them!”
But then the run got extended until 16th May, Andrew lost the will to fight and capitulation came in the form of £28.50 seats in the dress circle slips*, procured through the proper channels for Saturday’s matinee performance.
Leeds, 1980. Wilf (Troughton) and Connie (Steadman) Craven are an elderly couple living in one of the city’s last back-to-back** houses which is about to be demolished. Connie is reluctant to go but Wilf is looking forward to being rehoused in a modern maisonette. As Connie comments, “Mr Craven has always been on the side of progress. He had false teeth at 27”.
They receive a letter from the council telling them they will be visited by a sociologist who will observe their lives as a way of recording their disappearing community. The observer will be silent and they should carry on with their lives as though no one is there. Although Wilf is against the idea Connie relishes the opportunity but finds it impossible to ignore the silent watcher, getting out the best china and constantly chatting to her.
Steadman, practically unrecognisable in curly wig and housecoat, is superb, switching from hilarious to touching in an instant and well supported by Troughton as her grumpy husband. The bickering between the two resonated excruciatingly with the signally curious relationship of the Whingers. There’s a certain Ortonesque loopy logic to the plot as it heads off in atypically (for Bennett) absurdist directions. Even the slightly Pinteresque leanings did nothing to quell Andrew’s enjoyment.
And the language, of course, is pure Bennett; he is on home territory and at his very best. What is it that makes Connie’s proud statement that their daughter “takes air travel in her stride” so very funny? Andrew was gurgling like a drain.
Phil was laughing a lot too but the extremely elderly woman next to him was laughing even more and – getting no reaction from her husband – she kept glancing at Phil to make sure he was enjoying the same bits. Forming an unspoken pact, the ruder the line the more she laughed, the more Phil laughed, the more she laughed, and so it went on…
Indeed, Phil was enjoying the company of his new theatre-going pal so much that he was making plans to make Andrew redundant and contract out the vacancy to his new found friend.
Carol Macready turns up for a all too brief but hilarious scene in the second act as Mrs Clegg a busybody neighbour who helps Connie prepare Wilf”s possibly dead body in the traditional style. But Wilf, it seems, has very demonstrably died happy with more than a smile on his face. There are lots of knob gags which had the audience (and Phil’s elderly companion – that’s the old lady, not Andrew, though confusion is understandable) doubled up with laughter.
But Enjoy is an especial triumph for Steadman – she inhabits the character of Connie so absolutely – right down to the comuplsive pulling at her dress – that the Whingers actually felt a bit cheated: this woman isn’t a bit like Alison Steadman; we came to see Alison Steadman.
As a play, it’s somewhat eccentric. Mr Bennett seems quite pleased that he foresaw in this play the whole heritage industry explosion but we weren’t sure whether that was supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing.
But Christopher Luscombe‘s nimble direction keeps the pace up and the laughs coming without affecting the poignancy. The Whingers hadn’t had this much fun since Entertaining Mr Sloane. Luscombe is directing Alphabetical Order at Hampstead soon and the Whingers may have to (temporarily) lift the embargo that they placed on the works by Michel Frayn following Afterlife and give it a whirl.
- * There are two rows of dress circle slips which are “restricted view”. From the front row you can see what’s going on by leaning forward and (as one of our party found) kneeling may be more comfortable than sitting. From row B of the slips, however, the view is, yes, we suppose, technically restricted. In fact, it is almost totally restricted. We didn’t mind much as we moved to the expensive seats in the second row of the dress as soon as the lights went down.
- ** It’s not technically a back-to-back as mention is made of a yard. We learned that from the programme.
- BBC interview with Alan Bennett and a few clips of the show here.
- Interview with Alison Steadman and a few clips of the show here.
- Julian Pindar who plays Gregory has a blog here.