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Enjoy

Alan Bennett
Gielgud Theatre
(2009)

Up to 1980, when Enjoy made its West End debut, Alan Bennett had enjoyed a run of unalloyed glory. From the groundbreaking success of Beyond the Fringe through West End hits like Habeas Corpus and Forty Years On, audiences had lapped up the kind of humour that can simultaneously be gentle and probing as well as shedding great light on its subject.

Despite the presence of Joan Plowright and Colin Blakely, Enjoy did not draw in the audiences and Bennett discovered what everybody must on occasion accept, that life and the theatre aren't always perfect. The characters in the play certainly do, although the Bennett figure, played with calm demureness by Richard Glaves, is the kind of flawed but sanctified invention that just might be above such earthly concerns.

This playwright likes to draw from his own experience and Enjoy is a surreal homage to his parents. Whether they would have enjoyed being portrayed as rather loveable grotesques might be doubtful, if these representations really do catch their essence.

Alison Steadman plays Mam as a kind of Thora Hird character, while David Troughton's Dad is a throwback to a period long before 1980, with his bigoted everything-ist opinions and outspoken ways.

In a very clever twist, Bennett takes an anthropological look at this dying breed by introducing a silent sociologist, one of a team, to sit in a corner of their Leeds back-to-back observing their every move.

The house with its archetypal flying ducks is to be demolished and the occupants and their ilk are likely to follow but for the efforts of the recording angel.

What we and she see is outlandish but extremely funny. House-proud Connie is succumbing to senility but retains her values, while Wilf likes to shock with his smutty language and thoughts.

The day in the life of Mr and Mrs Ordinary becomes anything but. Dad's little girl Linda, Josie Walker playing a "personal secretary" who welcomes gentlemen callers and only works nights, returns; and in a surprising though quite predictable turn, so does their long lost son Terry.

Neither can live up to their parents' aspirations but both have love for them and the past that they represent.

The funniest scenes involve crippled Dad's apparent death at the hands of one of innumerable visitors to a house that usually gets none. The young lad first excites him with a girly mag, then accidentally finishes the old boy off.

The next arrival is the kind of next door neighbour that you hide from. On opening night, Carol Macready in the role of Mrs Clegg drew spontaneous applause for her cameo as a nosy woman overly interested in Dad's post mortem physical arousal.

Unusually for Bennett, Enjoy has a coarseness in its comedy that might have offended many of its natural audience and possibly contributed to the short run first time around.

The acting in Christopher Luscombe's transfer from the Theatre Royal in Bath is of high quality, with Miss Steadman particularly good, allowing us to laugh without guilt at a woman whose brain is slowly losing its powers.

Enjoy should do better this time, as Bennett ensures that the comedy underlying the autobiographical fantasy has enough laughs to generate word of mouth demand. This may not show the writer at his very best but there are not too many others around who can compete with him even a little off-form.

This production was reviewed at Bath by Allison Vale and at The Lowry, Salford, by David Chadderton. Peter Lathan also reviewed its 2010 tour in Newcastle.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Enjoy.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher