‘Dark’, ‘strange’ and ‘disquieting’ are not descriptions you tend to hear in reviews of Alan Bennett plays, whereas alarmingly clichéd phrases like ‘cuddly’ and ‘National Treasure’ do tend to crop up an awful lot, much to Bennett’s own chagrin. This might explain why his play Enjoy, newly revived at West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of their season devoted to the Leeds-born legend, has endured something of a problematic history since its first appearance in 1980. The West End audience back then, presumably expecting something much cosier, were notoriously unimpressed by a challenging play that posed difficult questions about modern working-class life and left its audience feeling dazed and confused. The play closed within weeks and Bennett himself, in a preface to the published text, ruefully suggested that perhaps he ought to have called it Endure instead.
But when the play was revived in 2009, starring Alison Steadman and David Troughton, its blackly comic attack on the heritage industry suddenly seemed decidedly prescient, as did its observations on reality television (still barely in its infancy when Bennett penned the play) and the blithe acceptance of routine official scrutiny of our private lives. It proved far more commercially successful and, coincidentally or not, Bennett returned to questioning what he described to me as “embalming the past” in his spikily daring play People which the National Theatre recently toured to considerable acclaim.
Which brings us to James Brining’s new production for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, one of the lynch-pins of an ambitious project exploring “the themes and styles of Bennett’s writing at different moments in his artistic life”.
Brining is, he says, “fascinated by the darkness and menace in the play, by the absurdist situation which becomes more and more surreal”, as well as loving “the way the play challenges and tests theatrical convention”.
The action is set in one of the last back-to-backs in Leeds and the sound of bulldozers moving ever closer drones in the background throughout. Wilfred Craven (Philip Martin Brown) and his wife Connie (Marlene Sidaway), who refer to each other not by name but as “Dad” and “Mam”, have lived there most of their lives. Their world has finally contracted to pretty much just their house, with Mam obviously in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and Dad nearly blind and suffering from an iron plate in his head after a hit-and-run accident. Their son has long since fled and Dad won’t even speak of him, although he talks constantly about his beloved, apparently successful, daughter Linda (Sian Reese-Williams) and the exciting new life he’ll enjoy once they’re rehoused in a maisonette. Their barbed exchanges are both hilariously funny and excruciatingly painful to hear, sometimes simultaneously.
Then a neatly dressed, strangely silent council official ‘Ms Craig arrives to record the old couple’s way of life before it disappears. Not the least disturbing thing about Ms Craig (Rob Delaney) is that he/she is quite obviously a man in drag. It’s also evident from her first appearance that Linda isn’t exactly living the sophisticated lifestyle Dad fondly imagines.
But nothing is quite as it seems in this darkly witty but deeply disturbing play, with designer Alex Lowde also springing a few surprises with the set. Brining isn’t afraid to emphasise the darkness and fear, the complexities and unanswered questions of Bennett’s script. He’s especially keen to explore the tension between having your identity formed by where you happen to be from and how you need to invent yourself to move on. “Roots,” as he points out, “can hold you back but they can also sustain and nurture you.”
It’s an acute and unsparing production, so don’t expect to laugh your socks off and emerge with a warm glow. But it’s also rewarding, compassionate and timely.
Review by Kevin Bourke
Enjoy is at the Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, until June 7, 2014. Other productions in the season include Untold Stories (June 2-June 21), Betty Blue Eyes (June 11-July 5) and Talking Heads (June 23-July 5), as well as An Audience With Alan Bennett (June 8).
For more details, contact 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk