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Matthew Kelly as Fitz, Jon Wark as Donald and David Yelland as Henry

The Habit of Art

Malvern Theatres 


British playwright Alan Bennett has the Midas touch of theatreland, with every script he turns his hand to bringing in accolades and acclaim.

The Habit of Art (2009) followed on from his famed plays such as The Madness of George III  (1991) and The History Boys (2004) - but has he lost his touch?

The story is a play within a play as we watch acerbic actors rehearse new play Caliban's Day about a meeting between the poet WH Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten in their latter years.

There's an impressive cast including Matthew Kelly (Fitz who is playing Auden) and David Yelland  (Henry who is playing Britten) in the lead roles and the acting really is impeccable. Veronica Roberts as the tactful stage manager Kay and John Wark as Donald are both particularly strong supporting roles too.

Bennett's core play about Auden and Britten is a fairly grim piece, showing ageing prima donnas trying to come to terms with the seedier parts of their lives - rent boys for Auden and an attraction to much younger boys for Britten.

The comedy comes from the actors playing them, who are at odds with the work and trying to change the play to the shangrin of the long-suffering author Neil, played animatedly by Robert Mountford.

There are some very funny moments revolving around this in Act 1 but the play loses its momentum and sense of humour in the second act, which makes it fairly tiresome by the close.

This touring production, a joint venture between The Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal, is full of the Bennett trademarks, but unfortunately lacks some of his usual sparkle.

There's still the sharp focus on character observations, particularly in the older generation, plus some very dry wit and barbed comments but the production doesn't build up to a crescendo or demand any real emotion towards the characters.

Matthew Kelly, the one-time host of You Bet, has changed tack in recent years with a keen eye for picking strong, character-driven roles on stage. Along with starring in plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Kelly has also earned himself an Olivier Award for his role as Lennie in Of Mice and Men.

He is a vibrant presence on stage as old school actor Fitz, who can't be bothered to learn his lines and is more worried about dashing off to do a Tesco voiceover.

While Yelland is extremely slick and has a wonderful sense of comic timing. There's a lovely chemistry between him and Kelly but I felt the script slightly lets them down.

This was an interesting venture for the playwright, but more a bronze than his usual golden touch. To 01-12-18.

Alison Brinkworth


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