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Posts Tagged ‘The Habit of Art’

I left the theatre last night with two theories – that Alan Bennett decided he wanted to see how many issues he could cover in two hours (more Ackybourn than Bennett!) or that he was downloading everything he wanted to say about everything while he still has a chance. If any play has ever thrown in the kitchen sink, without a kitchen sink, this is it.

I’ve already lost track of how many issues he covers and my brain hurts even trying to recall them. At its heart it’s the heritage industry in general and the National Trust in particular. Within that there’s the sub-issues of conserving & preserving versus access & exploitation, the roles of the ‘volunteers’, the industrial ‘colonialists’ and their victims, the morals of the Church of England, business and pornography……

Buried in all this is a fascinating debate (or three), some great satire and some very funny lines – but he tries to do too much and in so doing turns the characters into caricatures & stereotypes and the situations into farce (particularly in the second half). Even lovely central performances from Francis de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell get a bit buried and delightful cameos from Miles Jupp, Nicholas le Provost and Peter Egan likewise. This all takes place on a stunning set of a run down ‘stately’ home in South Yorkshire by Bob Crowley which transforms spectacularly towards the end.

It’s by no means vintage Bennett and seemed to me like it was something he hadn’t yet finished. I was surprised that director Nicholas Hytner hadn’t reigned it in and given it more focus. What could have been as fascinating a debate about heritage as The History Boys was about education has turned into a fairly pedestrian comedy which raises a lot of issues but doesn’t really explore any in depth.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself, but compared with all the other NT Bennett’s – Single Spies, The Madness of George III, The History Boys and The Habit of Art – this just isn’t in the same league.

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With The White Guard, The Habit of Art and this all running in rep. in the Lyttleton at the same time, you’d be forgiven for moving in. I will be showering this ‘lost’ Terence Rattigan play with even more superlatives than I did the other two; it will go down in the NT’s history as one of its great achievements.

Soon after it begins, you think you’re at a Noel Coward play; it doesn’t seem like Rattigan at all. It isn’t until the second act when the depth and complexity comes through. What at first seems to be a satire on the decadent lives of the pre-war upper middle classes soon becomes a fascinating study of relationships and love. Quite why it is rarely produced is beyond me; I love Rattigan’s plays and this is without doubt the best of the seven I’ve seen.

Thea Sharrock’s production is masterly; so subtle and nuanced, every word, expression and movement has meaning. Hildegard Bechtler’s Drawing Room set is so realistic it’s like time travelling back 70 years. It has one of the best acting company’s put together at the National; many of them new to the NT. Adrian Scarborough moves from court jester to knowing friend and confidante (just about the only emotionally intelligent character in the play) seamlessly. Nancy Carroll is so good as the superficial socialite when she break’s down its devastating. Benedict Cumberbatch’s repression is so real you jump when he explodes. In the supporting company, Pandora Colin is a superbly comic party animal and Jenny Galloway a wonderfully pessimistic secretary.

This is such a satisfying theatrical experience – great play, terrific performances, faultless direction & design – you’d be completely bonkers to miss it.

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