Re-Review: The Habit of Art, National Theatre

“I don’t prey on boys…”

Given how much theatre I like to get to see, it is very rare that I go to see plays for a second time, much less those with which I wasn’t wholly enamoured first time round, but circumstances conspired to get me back to the Lyttleton with an old friend from far away to see Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. The show has returned with a new cast for a brief residency here before a nationwide tour, taking in 9 cities in the UK.

You can read my thoughts on the original production here but I’ll quickly recap here for you. Through an imagined meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten, Bennett’s canvas covers a huge range of issues, the nature of creativity and what to do when the inspiration stops, following these two artists dealing with their homosexuality and growing old in their own ways. It also looks at the ethics of biography, the role of the National Theatre and the generation of all kinds of arts, so weighty stuff! When it works it is brilliant, but it must be said there are also times when it doesn’t quite click.

Fortunately this time round the audience felt much more responsive to the material, laughing heartily in places for sure but also just chuckling at time, recognising that not every single line Bennett pens is a comic masterpiece (the braying audience from my last visit was so annoying that it is the first thing that comes into my head when I think about this play!), indeed some of the lewd humour is borderline distasteful. And whilst it is funny and undoubtedly well-written, there’s an emotional distance here which I find hard to overcome. The structural conceit puts layer upon layer over the poignancy of the central encounter and I am not sure that this is to the play’s advantage.

As the leads, Desmond Barritt has the harder job in trying to locate the likeability in the irascible Auden but does well. I actually think I enjoyed his performance more than Richard Griffiths’ but mainly because I was not familiar with Barritt so had no preconceptions. But Malcolm Sinclair as the starched Britten is just brilliant and plays his other parts with a great flourish: I didn’t think he would match Alex Jennings’ portrayal, but he was pleasingly just as good.

In the ensemble, I counted three returnees but the principals are all new arrivals. Leads aside, Selina Cadell brings a wonderful wry weariness to her stage manager and Luke Norris’ appealing rent boy are both excellent and I enjoyed Matthew Cottle’s harried biographer Humphrey Carpenter, although it did feel a little like ‘can we cast someone who looks as much like Adrian Scarborough as possible’!

The set is still a brilliantly cluttered rehearsal room and the ensemble seem to have gelled together strongly already which can only bode well for the rest of the tour. I actually think that I enjoyed it more this time round, probably due to the distance from the hype and my familiarity with the material meaning my expectation level was more reasonable and I could appreciate it for what it is, rather than what I wanted it to be (ie another History Boys!)

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 21st September, then touring to Birmingham, Salford, Llandudno, Milton Keynes, Belfast, Nottingham, Leeds, Newcastle and Glasgow

2 thoughts on “Re-Review: The Habit of Art, National Theatre

  1. I saw it twice with the original cast, and my experience was exactly the same – I enjoyed it a fair bit the first time but not as much as the rest of the audience… that forced over-laughter is so annoying. Sondheim seems to attract that kind of audience as well sometimes. (Sorry if I sound incredibly snobbish here, I don't mean it like that!)

    Second time, the final show with the original cast, was much better – more emotional, funnier, etc. – I think the play is better second time, as you said when you don't have unrealistic expectations. And, probably since it was their last show, the cast were really giving it their all – Richard Griffiths was ad-libbing all over the place!

    – Rob (3rdspearcarrier on Twitter)

  2. Oh no, I know exactly what you mean about audiences. I've had several trips to the theatre adversely affected by the audience reaction being totally over the top, I just end up wondering what I am missing!
    It is interesting about how the expectation management was the same for both of us, you'd think as seasoned theatre-goers we'd learn by now, but I never do! Elena Roger in Passion at the Donmar is the next thing that I am totally overexcited for. 😉

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