The Altrincham Garrick Playhouse welcomes ‘The Habit of Art’, a play by Alan Bennett who certainly needs no further introduction. With many accolades to his name including the fabulous ‘History Boys’ and ‘The Lady in The Van’, this particular play that premiered in 2009 and is perhaps lesser known than others was a brave undertaking. Directed by John Cunningham and stage managed by Mark McEwan, Vi Pope and Karen Foster it is clear that The Altrincham Garrick are well equipped to take on this multi-layered play.
It is essentially a story about a fictional meeting between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden. The meeting takes place twenty five years after they had disagreed and damaged their friendship, seemingly irrevocably. It centres on the characters Fitz (Bill Platt), Henry (Jonathon Black), Tim (Patrick O’Brien) and Donald (Stewart Mathers) who are actors and are rehearsing a play called ‘Caliban’s day’. The Director has been unable to make the run through and so the Stage manager takes over the rehearsal.
It is key to the play and important to acknowledge from the offset that the mens sexuality adds to the drama of the entire play, with Auden being more openly gay and Britten seeming to be more fearful and repressed. The play was set in 1972 and the sensitive subject of its time regarding the sexuality of Auden and Britten showed that they arguably both encountered similar anxieties. It is this theme that is a continuum throughout.
Bill Platt’s portrayal of ‘Fitz’ (W.H.Auden) demonstrated that without any doubt Platt was at home on a stage. His experience of having been in more than 60 productions was evident. Whilst needing to be mindful throughout that Platt was portraying Bennett’s interpretation of Auden, he was effortlessly able to distinguish between Auden as a character in the play and also that of ‘Fitz’. Full of charisma, stage presence and playing the role of an annoyed, flamboyant actor, Platt executed this part to perfection.
Jonathan Black played the part of ‘Henry’ (Benjamin Britten) a gentler character and a wonderful contrast to Fritz. Black commanded the stage and demonstrated a desperation in his portrayal of Britten, again experience on stage was clear to see and both Platt and Black were a powerful pairing. Equally camp, hilarious yet passionate about their art choices they executed Auden’s love of poetry and Britten’s love of music extremely well.
It would be remiss not to mention Patrick O’Brien who played the part of the rent boy and the character of ‘Tim’ in the play – some brave shocking lines and all executed well- his youthful questioning of Auden as an older man was innocently addressed.
Stewart Mathers as ‘Donald’ and playing the part of ‘Humphrey Carpenter ‘in the play was hilarious and changed between an earnest actor on stage and when not in character of an actor desperate to influence the play in a way that was slightly left field, turning up in a dress in one scene.
The play felt a little too long overall and the dialogue was certainly persistent, however it is also important to acknowledge that when interpreting Bennetts work it would be hard to know what to leave out. There would be a temptation to suggest that on first glance this play is pretentious and unnecessarily ‘arty’. However, it is exactly this that in many ways Bennett is addressing (tongue in cheek mostly), as once you peel back the multi layers of this play there is honesty, friendship, an abundance of humour and a cynical appreciation of ‘art’. It is a play that allows you to almost hear Bennett himself speak throughout the play as there are so many similarities in the characters and Bennett.
The Habit of Art is Bennett at his best in many ways- such a challenge for a cast to perform ‘a play within a play’ but it was a definite success. It is wonderfully devious, shocking, mischievous and downright hilarious. The play is about art in its entirety. It is not only about theatre but about poetry and music. It also centres on friendship and keeping on going when age challenges us.
On at The Garrick, Altrincham until 24/9/2022 tickets can be obtained from Altrincham Garrick Playhouse Box Office on 0161 928 1677 or via www.altrinchamgarrick.co.uk
Reviewer: Angela Kelly
Reviewed: 20th September 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★