Poetry not really being his thing, Phil had never, to his knowledge, read any W H Auden. Until last night, that is, when he read one of the celebrated poet’s works in the programme for Alan Bennett‘s new play the The Habit of Art. He’s none the wiser about the poem, poetry or Auden.
Andrew, on the other hand, is far more literary having delivered a triumphant yet moving rendition of Colonel Fazackerley Butterworth-Toast as a precocious eight year old to a presumably stunned audience at the Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts.
Phil’s closest brush with poetry was at the National Gallery’s Sitwell exhibition when he was nearly mown down by Sir Stephen Spender’s wheelchair shortly after which in the gallery’s shop he got the chance to marvel at Lady Spender’s splendid ignorance of the logistics involved in writing a cheque. He did however, once appear in a school production of Benjamin Britten‘s Noye’s Fludde. Playing a wave. And he can still even sing Kyrie Eleison. And if you ask him very nicely he won’t.
All of which preamble brings the Whingers to their Monday night evening out at a preview of the most eagerly anticipated theatrical event of the year: the new Alan Bennett at the National Theatre.
And if that preamble seems even more cautious and circuitous than normal, that’s perhaps because Mister Bennett’s play is too. For this is a play within a play and occasionally the Whingers did wonder whether the esteemed National Treasure was a little disappointed that the play he really wanted to write (Caliban’s Day, about an imagined reuniting of the estranged Auden and Benjamin Britten late in their lives) didn’t quite have enough meat on it to warrant being, well, a play.
So instead we have a somewhat chaotic rehearsal for Caliban’s Day overseen (in the absence of the director) by the stage manager Kay (Frances de la Tour, excellent) 90 percent of whose energies must seemingly be devoted to humouring the actors. Sulking mostly in the background is the author Neil.
Phil would have preferred that we stay with the main story of Britten (Alex Jennings) visiting Auden to enlist his help with Death in Venice but Andrew was more than happy with Mister Bennett’s mischievous ribbing of the process of making theatre and its egos, frailties and silliness (not least the deeply lined WH Auden prosthetic mask). Phil, on the other hand, interpreted Britten’s struggle to write his opera and its mirroring in the troubles of the creatives trying to put the play together as Mister Bennett trying to tell us how hard it is to create art. He’s already chronicled that THOA wasn’t easy to write. Surely Britain’s National Treasure isn’t expecting his audience to sit through two and a half hours of introspective hand-wringing?
Fortunately, and as you’d expect, much of it is very funny. Despite the necessarily unattractive and evenly lit set (Bob Crowley) you arrive in the auditorium nicely assured you’re in comfy Bennett territory with Ambrosia creamed rice, Fray Bentos and a tin of Vim littering the set. When did you last see a tin of Vim? Probably, like Phil, in your mother’s hand as she scrubbed the kitchen floor with an old pair of underpants. And Jennings is particularly hilarious as the very camp actor and only slightly less camp Britten when he finally arrives at Auden’s shambolic Oxford cottage. Britten isn’t the only visitor that evening as there’s another gentleman caller in the form Stuart (the ever-excellent Stephen Wight).
There are also some rather enjoyable pops at the National itself. The suggestion that the Cottesloe could be converted into a billiard hall was presumably written to play to the Whingers’ gallery, even if they were sitting in the front row of the stalls. It’s the best suggestion they’d heard in years.
And there was an undeniable frisson when a woman (also in the front row) was unable to silence her mobile phone, and rather than locating it and turning it off waited until it went off again five minutes later. With Griffiths famous for reprimanding a similar transgressor from the stage the Whingers held their breath. But alas he managed to ignore it
There was a lot of head scratching among the Whingers entourage afterwards (Webcowgirl and Helen Smith among others) as to what exactly Bennett was getting at. Phil thought he might be having an oblique pop at modern X Factor style fame after Stuart’s speech about Auden and Britten’s celebrity and what would the rest of us be remembered for. But he won’t be going into print with that theory.
All the elements of The History Boys are in place: author, cast, director (Nicholas Hytner), designer. And whilst it’s nice to see Bennett releasing his theatrical corsets as he ages, few people, at the time, seemed willing to mention how decidedly dodgy that play was.
Whilst the Whingers would rather be holding tickets for a new Bennett than almost any other contemporary playwright, he probably needs to move away from foolish old men lusting after younger ones. The Whingers would hate to be the ones to suggest that Britain’s National Treasure is morphing into a gay Benny Hill. Bennett Hill perhaps? There, we didn’t say that did we?
Phil had been disappointed that ill health required Michael Gambon (initially cast as Auden) to pull out and be replaced by Richard Griffiths although, for various reasons, it seems quite the thing at the moment: Richard Briars and Adrian Scarborough (because he’s in The Habit of Art) had pulled out of Endgame, Kate Ashfield left Mrs Klein to be replaced by Zoe Waites and Matt Lucas was replaced by Con O’Neil in Prick Up Your Ears. There currently seem to be more withdrawals on the London stage than in a Catholic marriage.