Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford – until 6 October, then touring until 1 December 2018.
Reviewed by Antonia Hebbert
Alan Bennett has somehow achieved status as the nation’s favourite human teddy bear, but this play from 2009 is reminder that he has often dealt in dark and complicated themes. Here he gives us the imaginary meeting in 1972 of two great, ageing artists, the poet WH Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten, in an intense, serious drama that also makes you laugh.
What we see is a play about the rehearsal for a play about this meeting that didn’t happen, so prepare your head for multiple levels of reality. It could be a farce – a messy rehearsal space, a harassed stage manager, actors forgetting their lines and a playwright tearing his hair out. But Bennett uses the comedy and shifting layers of artifice to delve into creativity, secretive sexuality (in a very frank, raw language), theatre, relationships and the interplays and disconnects between artists’ life and work.
Director Philip Franks and a strong cast keep things grounded and clear. Matthew Kelly (yes, as in Stars in their Eyes) is stunning as a physically decrepit but searingly honest Auden, contemplating the end of life and the oddity of being both revered and sordid. In total contrast, David Yelland makes a convincingly prissy Britten. John Wark is solid as the (real-life) BBC interviewer and biographer Humphrey Carpenter, providing a commentary on the lives of the two men. Veronica Roberts stands out as the mother-hen stage manager who soothes egos and keeps everything going. Roberts and her assistant (Alexandra Guelff) also have a tiny but wonderful surreal moment as the actual art that has been produced. Hard to explain, but it works.