ben and Imo

Samuel Barnett as Benjamin Britten and Victoria Yeates as Imogen Holst.

Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

Ben and Imo

The Royal Shakespeare Company

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


Ben and Imo might not be known to everyone. They deserve to be. Imogen Holst (1907-84) was the only daughter of one of three great composers who died in 1934, Gustav Holst (the others were Elgar and Delius). She was a polymath, talented in many of the fields of music, not least a brilliant administrator, conductor, teacher, mentor and amanuensis.

The pictures we usually see of her are of a slightly tired, lined, though never frowsy, old lady. In fact she was quite a beauty in her teens and twenties, and, we are given to understand from this mischievous yet heart-warming play by Mark Ravenhill (originally heard on radio), such a racy live wire.

At the vibrant start of the play we see her coming to realise what her life's work will be. Ostensibly she serves; but the text makes clear she is jolly well going to wear the trousers.

The person who inflames her interest and to whom she decides to attach herself to is Benjamin Britten, acclaimed as England's greatest composer - arguably with Michael Tippett - of the 1940s (even 30s) through to 1976, the year Britten died, aged a measly 63, of a botched heart operation.

There's a lot to marvel at in Ben and Imo. The always intense, well-explored action focuses on one period: 1952-53, and the vexed gestation of Britten's (for a long time doomed) opera, Gloriana. The two characters Ravenhill prises out abetted by a good deal of sensible research, some of it also common knowledge, plus a striking gift for punchy dialogue, are infectiously believable. ,

They're brought miraculously to life by the perfect, combative, hugely enjoyable, stiletto-heel, naughty duetting of Victoria Yeates and Samuel Barnett: the whole evening involves just the two characters, but ones with very distinctly painted personalities. We are in effect present at a fencing match. Very much verbal rapiers. In their case, it would have been tennis, which Britten loved.


It's a tall order to ask just a pair of performers to whip through a very ample complete text. I suppose one might expect it in Pinter or Beckett. But Barnett and Yeates were wizards and made this an evening that never flagged. Word-perfect, endlessly teasing, superb at stirring each other up, Holst teetering between what for both of them (even though Britten alternately demurs) is essential bossiness, and deep affection.

Imo - whom a recent Swedish play The Secret Life of Imogen Holst makes something of the fact she was bisexual, at least in inclination - is very much in love with 'her' composer, Britten being - or for her benefit, playing - the mother-love needing little boy - an aching for intuition, tenderness, support, appreciation, scolding, applause, understanding.

A flood of letters, published or not yet published, provides an uncannily detailed source on nearly all, perhaps all, aspects of Britten's life. We know that as a person he was buttoned-up: not surprisingly, a composer has to shut out virtually everything when actually discovering his voice and composing. But not always. Britten could share everything in his life with his lover and partner, the amazing tenor and in some ways his muse, Peter Pears; and he was brilliant at japes and entertainments with the 13-plus boys - often musically gifted - who were, famously, almost his other confidants; certainly his playmates; sometimes, innocently, his bedmates.


It's this buttoned-upness that Samuel Barnett captures so convincingly at the start. Imo by contrast arrives in his life like something out of St. Trinian's, full of chat, and wit, and disagreement, which to him initially must have felt like mockery. He takes a time to come out of his cave, peer over the sand-dune, get out of his cupboard and engage. Barnett, stiff, awkward, tense, frustrated, captures all this and more. It feels like 20 minutes before he begins, ever so slightly, to unwind. Even to smile.

It's this tetchiness, and the way Britten unexpectedly allows himself to be wheedled out of it, which makes Barnett's corduroy-trousered, stiff-walk, hands-in-pockets, ill-health prone, hair-quiffed mannekin (Britten's curls were one of countless things that realigned him with his own childhood) such a fine and memorable performance.

 A few years ago there were three new radio- or stage-plays about Elgar. One thing they dug up was just how bottled up he too could be. Amateur chemist, dog-lover, infectious cyclist, bon viveur, unlike Britten devoted father, Elgar also needed to shut off. You could not have a more different character in Ben from Barnett's electrically ecstatic young Posner, curtseying in flamboyant French or troubledly finding himself in Thomas Hardy, in Alan Bennett's The History Boys, at the RNT and on film. This boy has range.

Appropriately in Erica Whyman's staging a full-size brown grand piano - not a Steinway: a Broadwood? - fills out the whole stage, except for a curiously readjusted, perhaps period, comfy chair. That seat (Set and Costumes, Soutra Gilmour) is actually one of the ways Ben comes round: at ease with it, and for moments more at ease with himself. The only other significant set detail, apart from a most appealing mini, inside-lit white house decking the piano (in 1952 Britten lived in Crag House, Crabbe Street (appropriately named after the poet of Peter Grimes), not his original Windmill, and not yet the vast Red House) is the lighting, in a vaguely sea-type blue, on not a cyclorama but the back redbrick wall of the stage.


Not a highlight. But the point is important: "My mood reflects the sea, it always does." Britten lived by the sea, walked by it, ingested it, and by the time of that same postwar full-blown opera, Peter Grimes, was - needed to be - obsessed with it.

Having announced her intention a) to do whatever was required and b) to become a fixture Yeates asks, blithely "What is my role, please?" Blithe, but testing. He doesn't know: "I didn't want anyone at all. I couldn't manage by myself." So what should she call herself? After a little bit more barney: "I'm happy with 'musical assistant."

It emerges that what he needs is someone not so much to assist, as to nurse him through writing his second largescale opera, for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. "Most people need someone else to make up their mind for them." Almost a plea. But typically his mood swings: "You can't be in charge of everything, you know," he grumps later on: "You must let me decide some things for myself." Yet seconds later, "I can't produce a Vocal Score (piano reduction) by myself. I need someone." Barnett needs Yeates even more than she does him. A contrast of personalities, but at best a close meeting of minds.

Having written bits, not much on paper but a lot buzzing around in his head (we three or four short phrases, but a most enjoyable repast of what became the opera's dazzling Choral Dances - "It's you - the Renaissance", Yeates tells him reprovingly: "They're not Elizabethan dances. Make those your dances".

Britten, maybe out of habit, is, or says he is, sure Gloriana will be a flop. For all Yeates' sympathy and encouraging and common sense, her belief in all his work including this, it was a flop - critic-wise, at least. It took decades before Josephine Barstow (as Elizabeth I) and the conductor Charles Mackerras proved what a masterpiece it is. Absolutely staggering music. Dynamic depiction of what seems like already a dying queen, no longer the buoyant, youthful 'Good Queen Bess". Here a massive crisis. A love match torn apart: not, perhaps, quite ideal stuff for Elizabeth number 2.


Barnett is excellent at the acid aside, or pert remark. He dismisses librettists as easily as Ben used to see off anyone, friend or foe, who crossed him. Ditto those many who - like fellow-composer Lennox Berkeley, or The Rape of Lucretia's florid librettist Ronald Duncan, who 'lent' Ben his teenage son - fall in love with him: "I have to hurt them very badly, it's the only way to push them back."

But these two rip-roaringly unpredictable actors burst into dance in what sounds like a musical number, "No more bloody conductors!", one of several hilariously constructed, vivacious twosomes, which end with the pair collapsing with laughter. Britten may insist "I'm a private person...". However - the other side - when Barnett blisters with anger, he really explodes. He has several such apoplectic big moments. And he really lets go.

After he has offered her a first drink, a teeny glimmer of softening, this splendidly matched, not merely skirmishing but given to violently warring pair give as good as they get. But amid the banter come the insights where Ravenhill urges us to a deeper level. "Without children, a person becomes more and more selfish." Ben has thought, he says, of he and Peter adopting two children: "a boy and a girl. No, a couple of boys," set against "One day Peter will find the right girl, go off and get married". Does he really mean that? Hasn't Peter found 'the right girl' already?

"We don't kill our parents, not as much as we're supposed to." Britten once made quite a serious charge against his father; though as always with him (and Elgar), we, or the recipient of some personal information, can't be sure whether he means it. Whereas "It really is such a blessed thing to be a child," we know pretty much sums up Ben's whole autobiography.

Conor Mitchell was invited to write a musical score for the play: an even more scrupulously constructed element than even the play itself. Some of the treatment, exploration indeed and expansion, of motifs, is not something an audience will be likely to spot. Or is it? The purpose is to create something subliminal, and perhaps subliminally it does have some of the desired effect.

imo and ben

The real, most affecting musical moment is actually an allusion backward, and perhaps forward too: Ben's enchantment with the lute song Flow my tears by John Dowland (c1563-1626). Britten wrote his lamenting suite Lachrimae shortly before the play's action takes place, but the poignant element is that he composed it (with piano) for viola, the instrument he most associates with his own schooldays and boyhood, and his sensitive orchestration of Lachrimae was almost the very last thing he wrote, in 1976.

When the by now insuppressible Samuel Barnett does turn to the piano, one delightful ingredient is the copious amount of 'grace notes' - decorations, or 'twiddles' Mitchell has incorporated. Britten did write like that, as did his 17th century predecessors, but what we got was a feast. Barnett's 'playing' was so effective, and accurate, and (like a script) well conned, that you'd easily think it was him actually playing. A wonderful, crucial impression.

The timing of the real pianist, Connor Fogel, marrying with Barnett - or vice versa, is quite breathtaking. The only hint that gave the game away was those tiny, flickering appoggiaturas, not so accessible to Barnett, though he does try. But what perfect Doppelgängers (intimate collaborators) they made. Was there a loudspeaker inserted in the stage piano? Surely not. Yet extraordinarily, the sound seemed to emerge straight from it..

Out of Imo's mouth Victoria Yeates drops, or drips, many pearls: evidence of control, of immovability, of empathy, of . . . love. "You're such a bloody fool." . . . "I'm staying, whatever you say" . . .  The two toss around fucks like tennis balls: is this authentic? Or anachronistic? Maybe both. We tend to associate Imo more with a duster and washing up bowl than oaths. Or with a score, sometimes one of her own still under noticed compositions. But each "fuck" brings merriment and increasingly, laughter, which is what they both need; or certainly he does. Yeates makes of Imo such an unashamedly animated virtual tomboy, she wouldn't blanch at it at all. Maybe her famous father said "fuck".

'Duty' - all this Lord Chamberlain and Lord Harewood (long a close friend and ally, then dropped for marital reasons) stuff about writing a royal subject opera actually for royalty - becomes a similar Leitmotif'. In a halfway curtain down moment, Barnett brings the two together: "I shall say 'Bugger duty!"

They both weep, once or twice in buckets. They can - and do - hurt one another, or ruffle each others' feathers. But more convincingly, they unite. It's not so very long before Yeates on the piano stool pats her lap, and Ben moves meekly to sit on it, or by it, and seeks her enfolding arms around him. Arms she aches, as the play would have it, to clasp her dear, indissolubly tolerated Ben, with.

It's one long bonanza. For all its glorious plum lines, this is not un unflawed play. This battle royal à deux is the only real substance running throughout. Frankly, it gets a bit samey. Calls for more of the Gloriana music (one passage, of falling arpeggios, is extraordinarily telling). More of its actual composing. A far more convincing and expressive seascape; when the grand piano is projected as a massive shadow on the rear wall, it seems amazingly threatening, and relevant (Lighting - Jackie Shemesh).

Maybe - or maybe not - some more characters, or as voices off. More than the minimal asides about Peter. The odd small boy, innocent or knowing, perhaps like Britten himself, central to Grimes, or The Turn of the Screw. B & I not just sitting, havering or hovering, but striding among the bulrushes. More echoes of other works. Opportunities missed? Yet it's all too easy to say what a play might have included; It is what it is. A coming together.

There's one response from her that does make the audience draw breath: "Do you like me, Imo?" Yeates: "I like your music". Hmm... Imo also shares the fact that her teaching methods are derided and criticised (that could almost be today). "Stop pretending", she says abruptly, with those marvelous switches of mood, or half-mood, Yeates' Imo does so well: "I won't be the phantom at the feast.... You'll be remembered for ever, and I'll be forgotten."

Well, not here, thanks to two such impudent, vivacious, ratty, bitchy, funny, OTT, energy-packed impersonations by two tip-top still joyously youthful performers.

They'd love to, but they won't, on balance, shout "Fuck the Queen; and fuck the Duke of Edinburgh!" Bugger Gloriana. Here's to us! Directed by Erica Whyman, Ben and Imo will be composing to 06-04-24.

Roderic Dunnett


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