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Enjoy

Alan Bennett
Peter Hall Company
Theatre Royal, Bath
(2008)

Publicity photo

When Enjoy first played to London audiences in the autumn of 1980 it disappointed. The audiences were already comfortable with Bennett's gentle northern comedy and nonplussed by the surreal Expressionistic feel of this latest piece. Despite Laurence Olivier's commendation (he watched the Dress and declared it to be the best play he had ever seen), Enjoy had only a short run and was a commercial failure.

To a modern audience, Enjoy is a gem of a play, not least because Bennett's hallmark is all over it, with brilliantly observed characters and some fabulous one-liners ("No foreplay, no after-play and fuck all else in between").

But this twenty-eight year old play is also a prophetic social commentary, which presaged the reality TV/performance art/ living museum culture. It foreshadows too that particular brand of modern political spin which sanitises mid-twentieth century working class hardship, attempting to sell it as our lost heritage of the idyllic family and the close-knit community, all 'mustn't grumbling' away in crumbling Victorian back-to-back terraces with their scullery kitchens and their outside loos.

Bennett's Craven family cut through all this as the inhabitants of the last of Leeds' back-to-backs in 1980.

Alison Steadman is superb as Connie Craven, house-proud and driven by appearances, her private heartaches slipping to the fore in unguarded moments, and her fragile, early-stage dementia steadily unveiled in moments of increasingly distressed confusion.

David Troughton is a tormented Wilfred Craven, lamenting his enforced retirement, turning to porn as a release and medicated to suppress his angry depression. This is no ideal family: his relationship with his wife is in threads, he romanticises his relationship with his daughter Linda, Josie Walker, (who hates him) and denies the existence of the son who let him down. ("Most teenage sons would have at least one unwanted pregnancy to their credit.")

The status quo into which the family have descended is an excruciating one, but Connie clings to it as much as Wilf rages at it. Both turn a blind eye to the rot in their lives: their son's sexuality, their failing marriage, their daughter's profession. What throws all this into turmoil is the visit from a council employed 'observer'.

Richard Glaves is magnificent as Ms Craig, the observer who comes to make silent notes on the 'normality' of the household as part of a council survey. He lends the character an irresistible, ethereal quality which draws the eye, for all that the character barely speaks until the second act.

Worthy of mention too is Carol Macready, who brings her spectacular comic timing to the farce of the opening scenes of the second act and whose exchanges with Steadman are magnificent.

Janet Bird's remarkable set is the silver-gilded inner shell of the house, the inner walls of the upper floor visible, the whole reminiscent of a partially demolished building. The glossy grey suits and impenetrable poise of the council employees add to the mounting surrealism and the final de-construction of the house forms a deeply unsettling and emotional backdrop for a memorable final scene.

"Enjoy" runs at the Theatre Royal, Bath until Saturday 30th August

David Chadderton reviewed this production on tour at the Lowry, Salford. Philip Fisher also reviewed it on its transfer to the Gielgud Theatre. Peter Lathan also reviewed its 2010 tour in Newcastle.

Reviewer: Allison Vale