Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Habit of Art

Alan Bennett
National Theatre production
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and touring
(2010)

The Habit of Art production photo by Catherine Ashmore

In the shadow of Alan Bennett's smash hit The History Boys, this new play about a play about Auden and Britten has a lot to live up to. It unfortunately rather lacks the narrative and invention of its predecessor.

For me it bore some striking similarities to the smash hit, the last time I saw The History Boys it was on tour with Desmond Barritt as the aging homosexual teacher Hector and in this tour of The Habit Of Art Barritt is Fitz (WH Auden). Fitz is his character in the play, Auden his character in the play-within-a-play, called Caliban's Day.

Like Hector, Auden is a big, warm humourous character who dominates the stage, but, unlike Hector, neither Auden nor Fitz have much to get their teeth into in terms of story. This is possibly because with their being two stories on the go at once neither one really gets going.

The imagined meeting between Auden and Britten is a great premise for a play but the supposed real world of the rehearsal room feels much less full of life and rather banal. Admittedly though the funniest moments are often in the play falling apart. The mask scene is a particular high point for laughs.

There's was quite a lot of comedy in the play, but it did take a while to get going. The arguments between Barritt and Matthew Cottle as Donald (Humphrey Carpenter) about where Carpenter should be on the stage are great.

The play rather lets the supporting cast down. Where The History Boys managed to flesh out almost all the characters, many of the smaller parts in The Habit Of Art are rather sidelined it might have been nice to hear more from Kay (Selina Cadell) and George (Danny Burns), although arguably the stage managers are unfairly ignored in the theatre in reality.

It is a good idea, but not properly fleshed out, a B-play to Bennett's blockbuster success.

David Chadderton reviewed this production in Salford

Reviewer: Seth Ewin