Lockdown reviews: A Habit of Art

Original Theatre’s touring production of A Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett, was one I missed on the live stage in 2018. It was due to return this year, but circumstances being as they are, here is a streamed version available to purchase for a small donation.

We are watching the rehearsal of a play which depicts a fictional meeting between writer WH Auden (actor Fitz, played by Matthew Kelly) and composer Benjamin Britten (actor Henry, played by David Yelland).

The title, The Habit of Art, refers to Auden’s description of his writing (“I have to work, or who am I?”). He’s not working much, and now Britten wants his help with an operatic version of Death in Venice.

This is Bennett at his bawdiest, with several knob gags within the first fifteen minutes, but also his most reflective, with a set-up where a chance encounter and a mistaken identity leads to reflective chat. Put this against a theatre group not unlike that in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser and you have something entertaining, closely observed and almost poetic.

Kelly and Yelland are more than a match for each other (“his life is ruled by verse’s curse”, it is said of Auden). In support John Wark is strong as Donald/Humphrey and Benjamin Chandler shines as Tim/Stuart with Veronica Roberts strong as stage manager Kay.

However, despite this revival being sharply directed (by Philip Franks) I found it had some stretches during act one where I lost interest in Auden and couldn’t find a connection to Fitz. Although, over the two hours this play takes, Kelly settles into the mannerisms and deep facial grooves of the poet-professor.

Britten is a showy sort (“it’s modern music, it’s meant to sound horrid”). It’s fifty minutes before we meet him, but Yelland’s performance makes it worth the wait. Britten and Auden, rivals, artists, awkward old men: their first scene is full of physical touches, tense in their distance, polite in theur conversation, broad in their touching on topics of interest.

“Actors are children. You keep them happy” is an old-fashioned view of theatre folk, however self-indulgent they are, but in Bennett’s words it feels right.. This play is funny, it is thoughtful, but it could take a trim or two to get it going.

The second act is sublime work with “an old man lusting after a boy” in Death in Venice pushing both Auden and Britten to reflect on their own peccadillos and invisibility.

Both The Habit of Art and The Croft (a thriller by Ali Millies) can be purchased on the Original Theatre website. Images by Helen Maybanks.