Whether it is from his late 80's series Talking Heads, the recent film adaptation of The Lady in the Van, or his smash-hit plays The History Boys, The Madness of George III and most recently Allelujah!, most of us are all familiar with Alan Bennett's tone of voice which is full of both wit and intellect. One of his more recent plays, The Habit of Art is no different in displaying that tone, since its opening at the National Theatre in 2009 with Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings.
For the two hours, we are the fly on the wall for a rehearsal of a play called Caliban's Day - which shows a fictionalised meeting between the poet W H Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in their later years. We are immediately faced with the strikingly realistic set of a local church hall, designed by Adrian Linford. It is a spacious with tall walls, noticeboards, fire exit signs, black curtains and hanging LED lights which are switched on by the cast both at the start and end of the play (and virtually the only source of lighting in this performance). But what is fascinating is the amount and use of props around the stage, like a clutter of resources for our actors to rehearse with.
The performances from this company of seven are individually terrific and work masterfully with Bennett's writing and Phillip Franks' marvelous direction with pace, intricacy and charm in this humorous piece. Leading the cast is Olivier-winning actor Matthew Kelly as Fitz an actor who plays Auden in the piece. There is initially something a bit diva-ish about Fitz's rehearsal process, constantly asking for the next line due to his old age, but Kelly gives a delightful performance as Auden, a decrepit old man who pays for rent boys and is full of ego. Star of screen and stage David Yelland also gives a great performance as Henry, who plays Britten. He is more reserved and nervous than Kelly's Auden but is sharper and full of expertise in his craft as a composer.
As the title may suggest, the whole piece is about the practice of art and how we as human beings tend to use or create it. The supporting characters personify brilliantly the need to feel purpose with their art, or in this case acting. We tend to both laugh and sympathise with John Wark as Donald, who acts as an omnipresent narrator in the Caliban's Day, but bevomes full of frustration as merely a device, not knowing where to stand and desperation leads him to entering the second half in drag to feel needed among the company. Benjamin Chandler also provides a lot of laughs as the rent boy hired by Auden and at the end of the piece also begins to feel frustration of his purpose as an actor. Robert Mountford who plays Neil, the writer of Caliban's Day as someone who is protective of the piece he has written and having to make do with misbehaving actors and script cuts or changes beyond his control.
Alexandra Guelff and Veronica Roberts are both superb as George and Kay the stage managers ensuring the production goes ahead as planned. They also have funny scenes personifying Auden's furniture and help deliver the context of Britten's music and Auden's poetry. Roberts in particular ends the play with a moving monologue that helps us the audience understand the craft that actors and theatre makers bring to an evening like the one we are watching.
There is plenty to enjoy in this profound and multi-leveled play that is packed with many themes that will survive for as long as great theatre, such as this, will survive as well as all other forms of glorious art.
The Habit of Art runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until Saturday.
Miller’s A View From the Bridge explores family life, working class struggles, and illegal immigration. The Touring Consortium Theatre Company portray the story menacingly well, creating tension where needed, and taking the audience with them on an emotionally explosive journey.
Jonathan Guy Lewis plays the pivotal character Eddie Carbone, the proud doting Uncle and hard-working husband who blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, his frustration and persistence ultimately leading to the family’s downfall. The role is incredibly well played, charged with anger and passion the audience are torn between feeling pity or hate for this lost soul on the verge of self-destruction.
With a fixed set there are no scene changes, however props covering 3 settings make for a busy stage. The large company carry the production at a steady pace with the real drama kicking off in the action-packed second half. Michael Brandon plays Alfieri, a Lawyer, and though his role appears surplus to requirements his narration provides a background story and allows the audience to fill in any blanks.
The tale is a tragic but predictable one. Lacking twists and turns the only excitement comes from the anticipation of violence. Certain Italian-American accents are dodgy at times, but the bleak costume design from Liz Ascroft perfectly captures the poverty and depression of the Red Hook neighbourhood.
All in all the play makes an enjoyable evening at the theatre, celebrating the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth. The production runs at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until Saturday 11 April.
Emteaz Hussain's Blood premiered in the B2 studio space at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry this week. In a collaboration between Tamasha and Belgrade Theatre, this was a beautifully crafted show.
Set in the Midlands Pakistani community, the play looks closely at familial ties and the impact this has on a young couple who are fiercely chasing their own wants and desires. The two-hander saw Krupa Pattani playing Caneze and Adam Samuel-Bal as Sully, and their onstage chemistry brought this heartfelt story to life. You instantly connected to both of their characters and this connection was never lost. The play was sprinkled with humour and, without question, both actors captured the dark and light of the play superbly.
What at first appeared to be an interesting, yet simple set, turned out to be inspired from Sara Perks. With each scene you were transported to a new place, and through clever use of props and lighting you could instantly identify where you were.
Filled with twists and turns, it was a compelling piece of theatre and Esther Richardson's dynamic direction brought this searing play to life.
Blood runs at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until 11 April and returns to the Midlands in May, when it plays at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 19 - 23 May.
The Theatre Royal Stratford East production of Oh What A Lovely War, by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, opened at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry last night as part of its UK tour.
This beautifully poignant musical is still as relevant as ever, illustrated last night by a talented ensemble of performers. Summarising the First World War in just over 2 and a half hours, there is an equal mix of humour and tragedy.
Ian Reddington's comedic narration eased the change of time and place, including a hilarious mix-up with a donkey photo, but the stand-out performance came from Wendi Peters who was utterly brilliant. I'll Make a Man of You and Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts were particular highlights and Peters seamlessly transitioned between a variety of characters expertly.
Other notable performances came from Mark Prendergast delivering a beautiful rendition of When This Lousy War is Over, Alice Bailey Johnson's Keep the Home Fires Burning packed an emotional punch and Lauren Hood's Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser elicited many a laugh.
With 41 songs and numerous scene changes, the direction of this play is no mean feat, but Tony award-winning director Terry Johnson has injected a new lease of life into this revival. The set design from Lez Brotherston was inspired and made for an incredibly touching Christmas Truce scene.
As the number of soldiers died, injured and missing during WW1 scrolled across the screens, the pause in performance made it all the more impactful and was a stark reminder of the horrors of war.
This really is a gem of a play. With infectious energy, fantastic ensemble numbers and stirring harmonies, it is sure to have a successful run at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, as well as the rest of the tour.
Oh What A Lovely War runs at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until 4 April and returns to the Midlands in May, when it plays at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 5 - 9 May.
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