20/1/10, National (Lyttelton)
Alan Bennett's latest. Entertaining but disappointing. Some very good jokes, but structurally a mess.
He seems to have started with an idea for a play about W H Auden and Benjamin Britten meeting again in Oxford shortly before Auden's death, years after they stopped talking to one another (why? never explained). But then presumably decided that that alone was not enough to sustain a full length play, and perhaps was too weak an idea anyway, so cast around for something to pad it out.
The result is a wonderful play about a play, with a shambling Richard Griffiths (deputising for Michael Gambon, who fell ill when rehearsals were due to start) playing an insecure if successful (Tesco voiceovers) actor called Fitz, and Alex Jennings as a splendidly camp actor called Henry. Fitz is playing Auden, Henry Britten, and Frances de la Tour is playing the stage manager co-ordinating a run-through in the absence of the director, and also playing the parts of absent actors and acting the role of mother hen and confessor to her demanding, raggle-taggle charges. At the end everyone else departs, leaving her alone to turn the lights out (literally): a symbol of all those women who keep the show on the road for little thanks and no recognition in families, businesses and organisations everywhere.
This is all great stuff, with for the most part first-rate performances (only the writer, an unwelcome presence to the actors, fails to have much impact -- is that the writing or the performance?). But there are problems. In the first half there's a running gag about the actors being unable to remember their lines, and Griffiths sometimes chants his lines as Auden as if he's only just learnt them, which doesn't help one grasp the substance of what "Auden" is saying; mercifully the conceit is dropped in the second half for the big encounter between Auden and Britten. I'd have liked more of this, but judging by the coughing the rest of the audience wouldn't. The trouble is there are no jokes in the confrontation (which is mainly about Britten's repressed paedophilia), but the earlier parts of the play have conditioned us to expect comedy, especially from Richard Griffiths whose timing is simply miraculous.
There were some lovely moments but it didn't hang together being very much a play of two halves, or perhaps several. In some ways it was a succession of sketches: Jennings and de la Tour as a pair of cleaners, standing in for the absent bit-part actors who have a matinee of Chekhov (we see one of them, dressed in his serf's coat and fur hat, at the start of Act 2, before he's shooed away by de la Tour who tells him he'll miss his cue); Alex Jennings recalling his drama school "friend's" career as a rent boy; the attention-seeking, anxious actor playing the biographer (Adrian Scarborough, very good -- "I still haven't got him, have I?") performing Doris the Goddess of Wind ind rag with a tuba at the start of Act 2; etc etc. The comedy overwhelms the serious stuff, whereas usually in Bennett they're very well integrated.
The set a rehearsal room with Auden's rooms sketched in (labels saying "fridge" and "cooker", bed up some stairs, two doors but no walls) and a grand piano high up on a stage above for Britten to play while rehearsing his young boy singers (and Jennings turns out to be a very accomplished pianist).
As a love letter to Theatre it worked very well. As a fully-functioning play it disappointed.