Brilliant Bennet? No, it's one for the luvvies


The Habit of Art (Royal National Theatre)

Alan Bennett, being English, hates to be too 'artsy' and instead wraps serious subjects in layers of comedy. He is at it again with his latest play, which is satirical, serious and self-indulgent, sometimes all at the same time.

The Habit Of Art has as many creamy layers as a Danish slice.

First, it is a play rehearsal within a play. The setting is a back room at the National Theatre - yes, the very same establishment where this show opened last night.

Poetry in motion: Frances de la Tour and Richrd Griffiths star in The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett

Poetry in motion: Frances de la Tour and Richrd Griffiths star in The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett at the Royal National Theatre

Richard Griffiths and his spare tyres play a waspish old actor who has been cast as W.H. Auden towards the end of his life. Mr Griffiths is a fine actor - hits the letter 't' beautifully - but his bulk is now a fatal distraction.

We are also introduced to Auden's former friend Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings, nicely queeny). Frances de la Tour does a lovely turn as a laconic stage manager who tries to keep the rehearsal on the rails while all about her is going wrong.

The play being rehearsed before our eyes begins as a pseudy horror - just the sort of thing, ahem, that we have had all too often in recent years at this address.

A knowing line about video installations received a particularly grateful growl of recognition from the opening night audience (big luvvie contingent).

There are various other theatrical 'in' jokes. Good fun, but of limited appeal. Mr Bennett may feel he has deserved a chance to be skittish and he may be right, but this show is very much one for drama professionals. They will certainly not mind the pages upon pages of willy talk.

Mr Bennett is on more familiar droll form as he sketches Auden's existence at Oxford University, thrown-away sadness detectable amid the provincial argot of workingclass stereotypes and the air of human decline.

One of the layers of his Danish slice is the contempt thespians have for playwrights.

Elliot Levey is excellent as the pretentious author of the Auden/Britten play, mouthing the lines as he watches the rehearsals.

The bad language and gags about men's appendages become a little tiresome after an hour. By that point Mr Bennett has hit the more serious (and interesting) question of Auden's reaction to Britten's success.

He both mocks and envies Britten's respectability, his self-restraint, his material prosperity. Shorn of the Bennettesque larking about, that might have made a better play, even if it might not have given a willing audience so many throaty laughs.

For all the muddle and a drawn-out, maudlin ending, this is a show worth seeing, if only for the occasional flash of Bennett brilliance.

My favourite line was: 'I saw a bishop with a moustache the other day.'

Britten's hatred of Sir Michael Tippett is also beautifully tart.

Some people were impressed by a line when the playwright character complains that the actors mistreat his plays, 'like chimpanzees meddling with a watch'.

Not a fresh image. The journalist Dominic Lawson used it months ago in a different context.

It would be unfair to say that late Bennett is as limp as late Auden, but only a flatterer would call this a masterpiece.

A version of this review appeared in earlier editions.

Verdict: Dirty laughs amid artistic muddle

Rating: 3 Star Rating

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