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Matthew Kelly as Fitz and David Yelland as Henry

The Habit of Art

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry


I love Alan Bennett and this play is as hugely enjoyable as it is unexpected. There’s plenty of erudite conversation about the arts but there’s an additional layer of earthy sexuality.

First produced in 2009, on the surface, The Habit of Art is a cosy but fictitious conversation as a play rehearsal within a play.

Caliban’s Day presents two actors playing the ‘greatest’ artists of the twentieth century W H Auden (Fitz – Matthew Kelly) Benjamin Britten (Henry – David Yelland). Both men are now in their sixties and meet in Oxford after 30 odd years apart.

Ostensibly, Britten has visited Auden to ask his advice about latest opera Death in Venice since Auden knew Thomas Mann well – well enough to marry his daughter! The two main actors Fitz and Henry also clearly know each other really well.

Fitz, as Auden, has the same fixation with time as he has a lucrative voice-over coffee commercial to record at 6pm that night. Britten is on a quest for young boy choristers. On the day in question, Neil (Robert Mountford), the writer of Caliban’s Day, visits the rehearsal in the absence of both the director and producer.

Company Stage Manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) has seen it all and undertakes the uneasy task of quelling tempers and reassuring the actors and writer supported by assistant George (Alexandra Guelff) who also has to sing in a queasy falsetto as Britten’s choirboys. George and Kay also have to ‘voice’ the furniture and a contest between music and poetry.

Auden has invited Stuart (Tim – Benjamin Chandler), a rent boy to visit but confusion ensues when at the appointed hour an uninvited guest, Humphrey Carpenter (Donald - John Wark), arrives from the BBC to conduct an interview.

For quite a while Auden thinks Humphrey is the rent boy and the conversation takes on a decidedly earthy direction which, frankly, would make your auntie blush. Humphrey’s character has so little direction that he is often unsure, to the point that he tries some outlandish ideas beyond the script. And I think that was a euphonium . . .

I really enjoyed the down-to-earth, adult nature of the conversation though at times it took concentration to discern if the actors or the characters were conversing. But this is rich fare indeed. To 10-11-18.

Jane Howard


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