Alison Steadman, David Troughton, Carol Macready, Josie Walker
The Theatre Royal Bath continue their successful formula of reviving ‘unfashionable’ drama, this time in the form of Alan Bennett’s rarely performed work, Enjoy.
An unlikely choice to follow up their production of Bennett’s Habeas Corpus in 2006 maybe considering its limited run at the West End in the eighties, but with its bitter sweet plotline and stellar cast director Christopher Luscombe is certain to strike a nerve with new audiences nearly thirty years after its creation.
Like much of Bennett’s work, the world we are invited into isn’t a huge departure from his own personal experiences growing up in the north of England.
Set in a cramped tenement house in Leeds, the sitting room of Connie and Wilfred Craven consists of hard backed chairs, a tin bath stashed in the corner and ornamental ducks on drab reflective wallpaper. The story is staged around the retired couple, whose life in the city’s ‘slum’ revolves around a ridged routine where ‘Mam’, Alison Steadman’s Connie, clad in a beige pinny, tidies a half empty room while ‘Dad’, David Troughton, perches in his armchair mulling over the past and their successful daughter, Linda. The couple are scared of their unknown future, particularly their uninvited visitor, Miss Craig, who has been sent by the council to ‘observe’ them for a Government survey.
Miss Craig watches events in silence as their daily routine is threatened by a number of typically Bennett style caricatures. A youth from the estate clad in Doctor Martin boots and braces who knocks Wilfred unconscious after a tussle over a porn magazine; the local busy-body and self proclaimed ‘tower of the community’, Mrs Clegg, and their daughter Linda, who after leaving the house to marry a Saudi Arabian businessman is revealed, to great comic effect and much underlying tragedy, to be a prostitute.
Troughton and Steadman sparkle as they riff back and forth always returning to the subject of their long-lost son, Terry, who Wilfred has disowned for being homosexual. Of course the plays success does not hang on the revelation that their female visitor, Miss Craig, is in fact the Prodigal Son returned in drag, and dwells longer on the idea that he wants to put them in a museum to preserve their way of life for others to view.
The outrageous storyline takes the edge off a lot of the plays grim subject matter and while things may get a little too farcical in the second half with the inclusion of the sex starved Mrs Clegg, arriving to wash and clean the ‘remains’ of an unconscious Wilfred, the final few stages see some dark revelations. Bennett’s script, which has been extensively cut for this production, does rely on his brand of private school toilet humour at times, but Luscombe does a solid job of playing down these elements by forcing out the macabre humour of the piece.
The devil is certainly in the detail and both the set and performances feel entirely authentic, forever feeding the audience the illusion that this is farce and then exposing real human tragedy in front of them. Josie Walker’s brazen northern girl, Linda, typifies this, in one scene comically sprawled out with her Saudi husband’s chauffeur, then later subtlety alluding to being abused as a child and her career in the sex trade. All of these characters could be played for straight laughs, but instead we get a feel for the soulless nature of this ordinary family that each cast member contributes toward. Though getting fewer laughs from her venomous character than the seasoned Carol Macready as Mrs Clegg, Walker is certainly as watchable as the engaging leads.
Steadman’s sentimental embodiment of the feebleminded Connie demonstrates the whimsical nature and heart breaking tragedy of the piece perfectly. Still living her childhood dreams through song, she has been held back by Wilfred’s fear of the outside world and when her Prodigal Son returns and promises not to put them in a home she believes him, forcing her own tragic conclusion. Her opposite number, David Troughton, lays Wilfred’s masculine bravado bare and presents a failed human being whose vices are hinted at and range from pornography to child abuse. Pre TV’s Jim Royle, he deludes himself he is every bit the working class hero, railing against white collar Britain with his half unzipped trousers, whilst still remaining human and, at times, likable.
Looking a little deeper, the play isn’t just sneering at working class values of a bygone age and manages to predict a number of events that dog today’s society. The bland face of bureaucracy appears throughout looking down on the curiosity of ‘normal’ life and it is easy to see why the company picked one of Bennett’s less twee stage plays to perform. The idea of placing living people in a museum seems absurd, but not too far away from our own reality with heritage centres dedicated to preserving mining and industrial communities as part of our cultural identity. Full of Bennett’s clever witticisms and Northern charm this grim tale of loveless relationships and human nature exposes the bone marrow of many of our own society’s views and is well worth a revisit.
Following its national tour, Enjoy will play at the Gielgud Theatre, London, from 27 January – 2 May 2009