Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be… York-born poet, W. H. Auden.
As the York Theatre Royal audience members shuffle to their seats, there’s already plenty to be looking at on stage. Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art tells the story of wordsmith W H Auden (played by Olivier Award winning Stars in the Eyes host, Matthew Kelly) and composer Benjamin Britten (David Yelland), and their friendship. But there’s a twist – it’s told through a group of fictional actors.
The scenery depicts a classic village hall: off-white and turquoise wood-paneled walls; a huge black curtain backdrop; painfully bright halogen lighting; and an obligatory tattered noticeboard with far too many pieces of paper stuck to it. The chaotic entry of the actors as they burst through the doors – all extremely eager to out-perform one another – regales with familiarity to anyone who’s ever rehearsed for a show before, be it professional or amateur.
The characters’ personalities and purposes within the story are made clear from the outset. Stage Manager Kay (Veronica Roberts) is authoritative and determined to keep the play on track while the director is away; Assistant Stage Manager George (Alexandra Guelff) is young, keen and trying to learn the ropes; and actor Donald (John Wark) is desperate (but failing) to put his stamp on his role as biographer Humphrey Carpenter. Most notably with his attempt at bringing the poetry to life through the comical medium of interpretive dance, female clothing and a (badly played) tuba. Don’t ask.
Undoubtedly, the stars of the show are Kelly’s ‘Fitz’, who plays Auden, and Yelland’s Henry, who plays Britten. Fitz regularly voices his (generally disapproving) opinions towards his fellow actors’ performances and writer Neil (Robert Mountford)’s artistic choices, and Henry stays relatively quiet until he’s prompted to chip into the conversation with his dry quips. One of these included an indirect jab at world-famous acting school, RADA, which felt a little close to the bone given that the majority of the cast trained there.
The script oozes the infamous witty style of Alan Bennett and succeeds in telling the touching, yet somewhat sad, relationship between the two artists, while regularly giving a light-hearted reminder that it is all, in fact, a play.
The Habit of Art runs at York Theatre Royal until 8th September, with Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2pm and 2.30pm respectively, and evening performances every night at 7.30pm. Visit www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk to book.