Wednesday, 18 March 2009

ENJOY by Alan Bennett

It is always an event seeing a show in the West End. London is a city with such a buzz: it’s cosmopolitan, busy, beautiful (some say ‘like the Curate’s egg’) and varied. I can’t say that theatre land is particularly beautiful but the sheer choice of shows is amazing.

So it was with pleasure (in spite of mixed reviews) that I joined a group of friends to see Alan Bennett’s play, Enjoy. First produced in 1980, the play didn’t do that well, but of course since then Bennett has become a household name, a national treasure.

Set in the 1970’s, the elderly Connie and her husband, Wilf, live in one of the last remaining houses due for demolition in a northern town. Wilf looks forward to the new maisonette they are due to move to, his wife does not. A young woman from the Council arrives to observe them and assess their quality of life. They have an idealised opinion of their daughter (whom hubby idolises) and a son whom Wilf has disowned (but wife adores) and who has not been seen for years.

The play’s first act could be described as ‘gently’ amusing. Pleasant, Bennett quips and northern truisms, but a little lacking in sparkle. Still, the audience had the expectation that this was a play that was going to evolve into something interesting. Then the second act descended into pure farce, the subject matter thoroughly suited to its middle-aged matinee audience. The fact that it was very funny was due to a great extent to the superb acting and relief from the rather flat first act.

Unfortunately, Linda, the daughter, arrives at this stage (no pun intended) – nothing wrong with her acting but it would have been so much better had the character not been seen in the flesh. The audience were quite aware that she was no shorthand typist but a prostitute: the character added nothing to the play, the slapstick/farcical sex scenes were thoroughly embarrassing in their naff-ness, her hint that her father had abused her incongruous and gratuitous. The play would have been improved if she had simply been imagined – and all the more powerful for it.

But Bennett does show what a fantasy life some people live, and to what lengths they will go to fit into their role. Although, as the play neared the end, the tone of the piece became positively morbid. It was as if Bennett couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the play to be. Not the ’stream of consciousness’ monologue of his we have come to love but part monologue(s), part farce, part heavy message. It seems as if he was bent on ticking all the boxes – homosexual son, doting mother, bullying father, abused daughter, hoodwinked aged parents, violent yoof, etc.

What made it, nevertheless, a memorable event was Alison Steadman’s superb acting as Connie. She managed to carry the whole thing. But (to quote a critic)'the poignancy of her character – one of a woman descending into dementia – was camouflaged by poking fun at her affliction'. The grumpy brutal character of Wilf is well acted – but what a part to have to play. The only time the audience have any sympathy for him is when he says how he would have liked to hold his sons hand when he was a boy.

There are twists and turns in the plot – some thoroughly expected, others not – but what started as a kitchen sink drama, progressed to farce and ended up as tragedy – left the audience feeling a bit, well, uncomfortable. And cheated. It was billed as great comedy. We – the audience – were not quite sure what had happened. As the play took a heavy and macabre turn after the farce it left us feeling as if a freight train has just come thundering out of a toytown tunnel.

But, if nothing else, it made me see Bennett, the writer, in a more realistic light. This play was written at the start of his writing career, and to see his later work (such as Talking Heads, The History Boys etc) makes one realise how much some writers can grow and blossom. So I’m taking an optimistic view of the thing – and hope we can all enjoy such improvement.

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