Thursday, 16 April 2009
Bennett revival is a gem to enjoy
Enjoy by Alan Bennett
Geilgud Theatre, London
Alan Bennett is apparently known, by some, as ‘the teddy bear playwright’. Perhaps it’s a reference to the idea that Bennett, when talking, sounds a little like one imagines Winnie the Pooh would. Or Eeyore.
But such a nickname completely belies the darkness and prophetic qualities of this ‘national treasure’, and it perhaps no great surprise that the current revival of his 1980 play, Enjoy, has upset some who cling to the safe, cuddly idea of Bennett.
Set in Leeds, in one of the last back-to-backs, this is the story of Connie and Wilf, an elderly married couple.
She is suffering from Alzheimer's, barely able to remember anything for more than a minute or two, other than songs by Noel Gay and Ivor Novello. He can move little after a road accident, is obsessed with sex and desperate to be moved into a smart new council maisonette.
But then the council sends them a letter explaining that an ‘observer’ will be coming to visit them, to watch their ordinary lives and record their day-to-day existence before it is wiped out for ever.
Add into this mix the couple’s daughter and a mysterious, absent son, apparently gay, whom his father pretends has never existed, and you have a combustible mix.
The play not only looks at dysfunctional family relationships, including a marriage that, if it ever was based on love, has degenerated into mere habit and tetchy tolerance, but Bennett’s predictive powers are extraordinary.
Just a year into the Thatcher era, it predicts the destruction of communities – the destruction, indeed, of a class as it had existed. It raises the question of how we care for the elderly (and the vulnerable). Then it predicts the advent of the heritage industry, reality TV and the surveillance society, and the commoditisation of so much of life.
Sharp and bitter, Enjoy is both absolutely hilarious and painful, as the tragedy – and that is what it is – unfolds. It is deeply political, without ever mentioning politics.
David Troughton as Wilf is magnificent: bullying, bluff and frightened all at once. But Alison Steadman turns in a masterclasses as Connie – and absolutely fantastic performance to light up a really excellent and massively underestimated work by Bennett. This is not theatre for anyone who wants to curl up with a teddy bear for comfort.