People – February 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Alan Bennett

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Saturday 2nd February 2013

A very enjoyable new play by Alan Bennett, poking fun at various establishment targets such as the National Trust, the Church of England (de rigeur these days), eccentric aristocrats and modern technology. The porn industry even took a few hits, but mostly this was a slightly nostalgic look at modern times from the perspective of those who were young adults in the 60s, ripping through some of our modern illusions and preoccupations and giving us plenty of laughs along the way.

The set was fairly elaborate. All the action took place in a large drawing room which at the start looked very dilapidated. A swathe of grey plastic sheeting covered the large central rose in the ceiling, the enormous picture on the back wall was likewise draped with plastic sheeting, and there were dust sheets over a lot of the furniture. I spotted two obvious gaps on the walls where pictures used to hang, and there were various items of furniture and bric-a-brac dotted here and there. I assume the tin bath was a ‘leakage solution’. Two armchairs were positioned near the front of the stage facing a small electric heater, and there were lights, tables, etc. around them. On the far right stood a bureau.

The film crew for the porn shoot didn’t change much of this, but they did bring on a four-poster bed along with all their equipment, having moved the central chairs over to one side. They took their equipment with them when they left, and not long afterwards the restoration work transformed the room to a magnificent version of itself. The sheeting covering the central part of the ceiling was removed (downwards, I think) and a properly restored rose replaced it. The tatty bits of decoration were either removed or covered up, as with the pictures placed over the obvious gaps on the right wall. The ensemble worked their way round the room from left to right, making various scrubbing and polishing actions to indicate the work that was going on, and once they’d finished the room looked splendid, if a lot more formal. One thing puzzled me. The large canvas on the back wall had been removed at the start of this process; all well and good, presumably off for restoration. During and following the changeover there was some dialogue going on, and the area behind that wall suddenly transformed into another room, or so it looked to me at first. Then I thought it might have been a large mirror, and we were seeing a reflection of the room, but the image didn’t quite tie up. Finally the picture was dropped back into position, and I’m still none the wiser as to what was going on with that ‘other room’. [Just checked the play text – the author suggests that during the transformation there may be “a vision of the Adam saloon at the rear of the stage”. But why?]

Apart from that minor point, the story was pretty straightforward. Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) was the elder of two sisters, and living in the family mansion which was now crumbling to bits, located somewhere in the North of England. Her companion Iris (Linda Bassett) was the only other resident, and they spent most of their time huddled in a small part of the large room, trying to keep warm. Dorothy’s sister June (Selina Cadell) was in the Church of England in a middle management position (I have no memory for the ranks of that organisation) and but for the recent vote against giving women too much power, would no doubt have her sights set on the top-job-but-one.

June’s intention was that the house be given to the National Trust, but Dorothy, who actually owned the place, wanted to check out other options. When Bevan, a valuer from one of the big auction houses, suggested selling to a private consortium of the very wealthy who would pay handsomely to keep the house for their exclusive use, she found the idea tempting, but in the meantime there were bills to pay. A ‘quickie’ with the makers of a porn film at least provided hot water and hot meals, as well as a trip down memory lane for Dorothy. The producer/director was someone from her past, when she was a top fashion model, and the chance to wear her 60s haute couture again was irresistible.

At last the decision had to be made, and the Trust won the day. The final scene showed us the visitors wandering around the room while a screen (facing us so we could see the film) showed Dorothy in her bag lady clothes talking about the room and its history. The visitors gradually left and Dorothy had a final encounter with Louise, the makeup lady from the porn film, giving her a farewell gift. As she left the now empty room, Dorothy triggered the recorded announcement “The House is now closed”, and that was that.

The cast were all good, but again we had a triumvirate (or should that be trifeminate?) of excellent performances at the centre of the piece. Frances de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell were magnificent, and although there were good supporting performances, particularly by Peter Egan and Miles Jupp, the women carried the day. It underlines the complaints about the lack of roles for women over thirty, when we have so many talented female actors who can dominate the stage at that age and beyond.

While I enjoyed this play well enough and there were plenty of laughs to be had, I did feel it was a bit thin at times. The targets were easy, even lazy ones, and the slick bon mots occasionally felt recycled. The short opening scene, which set up the idea of the porn film, was entertaining but didn’t flow into the following scene, and this got the play off to an uneven start. I did like the scenes with Bevan though, especially his suggestion that the house might be moved somewhere warmer and more accessible, like Dorset. And I liked the way June changed her attitude towards him once she realised he was involved in the purchase of Winchester Cathedral. They occasionally sang hits from the 60s, such as Downtown, which gave us a very strong sense of time and meant we left the theatre singing to ourselves. Good fun.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

The Madness of George III – November 2011


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Philip Franks

Company: Theatre Royal, Bath

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th November 2011

This was a fabulous production with an excellent central performance and strong support throughout. I hadn’t seen the original production at the National so I have nothing to compare it with, but I suspect this production would have stood up against it very well.

The set was very sparse, although that was due to the nature of Chichester’s main stage. A black wall with gaps all along the back, and a square of beige flooring in the middle of the stage – that was it! We gathered from the post-show discussion that in the proscenium arch settings, there are lots of backdrops which are used to separate the rooms; with this open set, they had to work a bit harder to get the locations across, and our response was that they’d done that very well. There were lots of chairs and a desk or two which were brought on and taken off, and the costumes were lovely as well, but otherwise it was just acting, and lots of it.

The story is pretty well known now, and although the stage play is necessarily different from the film, they cover the same ground. We weren’t shown the contents of the King’s chamber pots (mercifully!), but we did have to sit through some of the tortures inflicted on him in the name of ‘healing’ – blistering, purging, and that horrible chair.  Thank God for modern medicine.

David Haig’s performance as King George was superb. He was likeable as the relatively sane monarch, with his little idiosyncrasies and his concern for his people, but as the ‘madman’ it was very difficult to watch him at times, especially with such little understanding on the part of those around the king. With the king’s suffering so clear, he brought a huge amount of compassion out in me, which is no bad thing. He told us in the post-show that he’d started learning his lines months before rehearsals began, as it was the only way he could get all that dialogue into his memory in time. His delivery was fantastic – even the gobbledygook was understandable, if you see what I mean.

The queen was magnificently regal, while the Prince of Wales (are we allowed to hiss and boo?) was wonderfully self-centred and petulant, with a face you just wanted to slap (no offence to the actor). Mr Pitt was sober and careful, the Lord Chancellor sly and politically adroit, and Fox, Sheridan and the Prince’s other cronies creepily reminiscent of recent political events. The doctors were marvellously unconcerned about the efficacy of their treatments with the exception of Willis, who although he showed the most concern for the King as a human being, was equally ineffective with his treatments and received a deserved cold shoulder by the end. At least he wasn’t torturing his Lincolnshire patients to make them better. The servants also did a good job, although their parts were less well defined, and the whole cast did a fine job of adapting to the wide open spaces of Chichester. There was plenty of agony along the way, but plenty of humour to lighten the load as well – a good mix.

From the post show we learned that this was the final week of their tour, before the production goes into London in January. The audience who stayed behind were very appreciative of their hard work, and David Haig in particular was very complimentary about the Festival Theatre as a performance space, with the audience wrapped around the stage. Apparently Alan Bennett doesn’t go to revivals of his plays as he always sees things he wants to rewrite, so he prefers to concentrate on whatever play he’s currently developing. He sends his brother Gordon to see the revivals instead!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The History Boys – January 2011


By: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 24th January 2011

I wasn’t drawn to this play when it was on at the National; no idea why, it just didn’t grab me despite having an excellent cast, and being by a great writer whose work I usually enjoy. I was happy to go to Chichester to see it, though, and at least now I have some idea why I wasn’t keen to see it earlier. Some of the problems were down to this production, one was unfortunately in the audience itself, but some were definitely down to the play.

Firstly, the audience. The couple behind us were determined to have as many ‘chatter’ moments as they could. They cut it pretty fine at the start, almost talking over the dialogue, and they used every scene change to continue their not very quiet conversation, but it was at the start of the second half, when they did carry on over the first lines, that I turned round to tell them to shut up. In no uncertain terms. And thankfully, they kept quiet for the rest of the play, which is probably why I enjoyed it more in the second half.

The next problem was the delivery. I could hear some of the dialogue clearly, and the singing was fine, but I missed a lot as well, including some of the jokes. The accents didn’t help, but I got the impression that this was a proscenium arch production that hadn’t been fully adjusted for the wide thrust stage, and the actors may not have been prepared for how much more they would have to work to get the lines across.  Naturally, that ruined much of my enjoyment. Also, with the proscenium arch staging, I found it hard to see some of the action properly, especially the opening scenes of each half where Irwin, in a wheelchair, was mostly obscured by the furniture. I gather from Steve that the opening scene at least was done by video at the National, so presumably they didn’t want to tour with that level of technology, or else they just wanted to do it differently. Fine, but I wasn’t involved enough at the start because of it.

Then there were the performances themselves. Mostly fine, there were some weaker areas. Much as I love Philip Franks as an actor, with many fine memories of his work through the years, I felt his Hector wasn’t ‘strange’ enough to make sense of the role, and not entirely believable as the closet gay teacher who gropes his pupils’ balls while driving his moped with one hand and much too fast. I say ‘closet’ gay – this was one closet that had lost its doors. Steve reckoned Richard Griffiths was much more eccentric, and that worked better.

Likewise, I found some of the other characters weren’t well drawn enough. The female teacher, Mrs Lintott, while having some of the best lines, didn’t seem to have any particular character, Irwin was very weak, both in delivery and characterisation, and although the main boys were very good, there was a lack of depth in the ‘chorus’ that left me cold. I suspect we may have caught this production very early in its tour, and that it needs some time to get to grips with the play. [Not so; after checking websites, this tour started in 2010] At the moment, it feels like the actors are relying on Alan Bennett’s writing too much, and that just saying the lines should be enough. For me, I want to see more acting as well, and especially I’d like to be able to hear the lines they’re saying as well.

Finally, there’s the play itself. I’m not a boy, my education experience was very different from the one shown on stage, and I found I not only disagreed strongly with many of the opinions expressed, I also felt the thinking in this area seemed very shallow. I didn’t get any real sense of the different attitudes to teaching – Steve says this came across more strongly in the National production – and therefore much of the play seemed pointless. And what exactly is wrong with encouraging students to think for themselves and have a different point of view? I agree it can be used simply as a technique to make someone sound more intelligent and knowledgeable than they are, but it is also a valid way to make a point, and in general, I think it does history, as well as other subjects, no harm at all to have to tackle multiple viewpoints. After all, many of the cultures the British colonised for so many years have had opinions which differed from the accepted British Empire view of history, and these have been and are being assimilated into a greater world view – what’s wrong with that? I certainly agree that much of the TV history presentation is akin to journalism – naturally, since that’s what works on TV. And what’s wrong with journalism exactly? None of this was explained; it just seemed to be assumed that we would all agree on the ‘correct’ standards, and so find the jibes at one or other target to be funny. Well, some were, most notably the emphasis on league tables and the treatment of women in the academic professions. But a lot weren’t which is unusual for a writer of Bennett’s calibre. I can only assume that with so many parents concerned about their children’s education, this play touched a funny nerve, which is why it was so popular.

So not the best evening in the theatre, then. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I wouldn’t rule out seeing it again, in a much better production. Steve reckoned he would have given the National version a nine or ten-out-of-ten rating, and this one only a six, so clearly there are problems to be sorted out from our perspective. Regardless, I do hope they have a good tour, as many people last night were clearly enjoying themselves more than we were.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Habit Of Art – May 2010


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Saturday 15th May 2010

At last we made it! We had to miss an earlier performance due to ill health or travel problems or somesuch, so I was very glad to get here today. This is probably the best thing we’ve seen this year so far, almost 10/10, but unfortunately it not only included some of Auden’s poetry (not a fan) but the format is a play within a play, where the fictional author’s work is meant to have some less good bits in it, such as talking furniture, talking facial creases, etc. These were fine up to a point, and did give us some very good laughs, but they do have the drawback of being not very good, and however much I put them in quotation marks they still tend to lower the standard. There were a few other areas that became unnecessarily dull as well, but overall the experience was very great fun.

The set was excellent. I’ve never been in a rehearsal room at the National, but the design looked very similar to the workshops which we saw on a backstage tour. Left and back walls were white brick, apart from an area of black panels in the back wall, while the right wall was wooden strips. The fictional play’s set was mocked up in the middle – small raked area with desk, two chairs, piano behind, door to the right of that, kitchen area to the left (bits were labelled ‘fridge’ and cooker’), bed raised up behind piano, and an upper level on the left with a grand piano and chair – destined for the Cottesloe, then. Around this ‘set’ there were several chairs front left, and a string of desks to the right, including a keyboard. The ‘real’ sink was against the left wall, behind the entrance door. Even the ceiling lights were authentic. And there were all sorts of books and other junk cluttering up the ‘set’.

The performance started early, with the ASM arriving first to set things up. The audience pretty much ignored this, so I was glad when they finally twigged that we were under way and shut up in time for us to hear the dialogue. The second half was much the same, with cast members arriving back in the rehearsal room in dribs and drabs, and chatting away to each other. The audience were a bit more alert second time around, thank goodness.

The play within the play concerned a meeting between Auden and Benjamin Britten after a gap of some thirty years in which they discussed, amongst other things, Britten’s next project, an opera based on Death In Venice, the Thomas Mann novel. It also covered Auden’s complete lack of hygiene, his preference for sucking off rent boys to a very strict schedule, and various other musings on the lives of these and other famous men. We got the inevitable ‘more fucking elves’ comment about Tolkien’s work, and of course the music was largely Britten’s, although Show Me The Way To Go Home also featured.

The contextual play allowed for frequent interruptions to question the facts, the dialogue, the staging, etc., and meant that a good deal of extra information could be brought out without having to double-dramatise it. And there was all the fun of watching a ‘rehearsal’ in progress, with many wry observations on the way these things work, the way actors behave, the diplomacy skills required to keep it all on track (Frances de la Tour was excellent as the stage manager) and the way the National itself operates. For example, two of the actors couldn’t make the rehearsal because they were in the Chekov matinee, although one of them did turn up during the interval chit-chat on stage in full Russian peasant gear.

The performances were, as usual, excellent, with many lovely touches. Adrian Scarborough’s actor character, who played Carpenter, the biographer of both Auden and Britten, was deeply distressed to find out that his part was simply a dramatic device, and his attempt to bring out more of Carpenter’s background by dressing up and singing a song about the wind made for a great start to the second half. Alex Jennings’ character Henry contributed some interesting revelations about his time as a rent boy when he was studying at RADA, thinly disguised as the experiences of ‘a friend’, while Elliot Levey as the author gave Bennett a chance to poke fun at the writer’s lack of authority in the rehearsal room. All good fun, and worth the wait to see it.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Enjoy – October 2008


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 27th October 2008

I have absolutely no idea how to categorise this play. It was certainly funny; we were amazed at some of the things we laughed at in this play, including a disabled chap with a plate in his head, the washing of a dead body, someone peeing through a letterbox, obvious poverty, etc. It was also very dark in places, and although there was a surreal air to the suited folk who took the house, and in fact the whole street, off to a museum situated in a park, complete with forgetful old woman, the line between realistic and surreal was so fine as to be almost invisible.

The set was the sitting room of an old back-to-back, with the door on the left, kitchen door next to it, and stairs next to that. It seemed ludicrously small in the vast space of the main stage, which added to the fun, and presumably made it easier to take it apart at the end. There was a folding table with two chairs to the left of the door, a sofa between kitchen and stairs, and to the right was the chair that Wilf, or Dad as he was mainly called, sat. He had been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver, so couldn’t walk very well and had a plate in his head. He kept his porn stash behind his cushion, and split his time between reminding Connie, or Mam, of whatever she’d forgotten, praising his daughter to the skies (a PA who was actually a whore), and bad mouthing everyone and everything else, especially the son he claimed he didn’t have, and who’d left them many years ago. Mam, played by Alison Steadman, could have lost a memory contest against a goldfish. I lost count of how many times Wilf had to remind her that Linda, their daughter, had gone to Sweden. The joke had a massive payoff though – when Linda arrived back unexpectedly, it turned out she’d actually gone to Swindon.

So far, it’s been a fairly recognisable picture of family life in those kind of houses, and in any period from the fifties onwards. The play was first produced in 1980, and we reckoned it represented the 1970s, but still seemed as if it had been written yesterday. The attitudes are so old-fashioned, but the references are to the 70s, and the feel is very up-to-date. Quite a remarkable achievement, and perhaps that’s why the play seems to be doing better today than it did when it was first produced.

A letter arrives from the council. They’ve been knocking down all the old houses and re-housing the occupants, but now they’ve realised that they’re wilfully destroying the evidence of a bygone age, and so they want to study the remaining inhabitants so they can preserve a record  for posterity, or some such reason. They want Mam and Dad to allow an observer into their house, a lady who won’t speak to them but will record what goes on. Mam decides to let her in, and it’s obvious the woman is actually a man in a grey skirt and jacket. (S)he takes a seat by the table, crosses her elegant long legs and stays completely silent throughout. Of course, Mam and Dad can’t avoid talking to her, and despite claiming to carry on as normal, their behaviour changes noticeably. The best china comes out for a cup of tea, for example, and Dad’s language improves dramatically. Mind you, it isn’t exactly a normal day they’re having, what with Linda coming back and announcing she’s off to Saudi Arabia to marry a sheikh, and Dad getting hit on the head by a local thug (who brings him his porn mags, but who also likes using the letterbox as a urinal). The thug hits him too hard on his metal plate, and Dad goes unconscious. When Mam returns from doing her shopping soon after (she forgot  she wanted a tin of salmon, so got some loo rolls instead), she thinks he might be dead, and gets one of the neighbours to help her deal with the body. Played by Carol Macready, this formidable lady informs Mam that if he is dead, they’ve only just missed him, and then they decide to wash the body, as the local undertakers is now a paving slab place. David Troughton, who played Dad, had to put up with two women groping him all over, taking his clothes off and putting him on the floor. No wonder Wilf gets an erection! It’s all very tastefully done, but the sight of the two women wondering if this reaction is normal with a dead body, while there are two observers sitting serenely, taking it all in (the neighbour brought her own observer), was utterly hilarious.

Eventually Mam decides that she’s had enough of the old ways, and that the Co-op can take care of it. They put Wilf back in his chair, and Mam checks on the “situation” from time to time. It’s about this time that Terry, their son, reveals himself. Of course we guessed who he was before this, and Connie makes it clear she recognised him as well, though her memory problems mean she doesn’t remember this a short while later. Linda comes back, in a temper, as she didn’t make the shortlist for the sheikh’s new wives. She brings another man with her, her latest client, I assume, and there’s a lovely touch when Mam assumes he’s another one of the observers, and comments on how chatty he is, not like the others. This time, Linda’s off to somewhere else, I forget where, and then Wilf revives. He’s only been unconscious after all. But now he finds he can’t move – the blow to his head must have paralysed him. Connie acts like he’s just making it up, or that it’s temporary, but we can see it’s real, and this is when the play gets really dark.

Terry explains that “they” want to take Connie and Wilf away from this place, and after reassuring them both many times that’s they’re not being put into a home, he tells them they’ll be living in the same house, but with a lot more comfort, in the museum in the park. Visitors will come round and see how bad things used to be in the old days. But Wilf  has to be taken to the hospital instead, as he needs to be taken care of, and he’s both terrified and frustrated that he won’t get into their promised new maisonette. As the suits remove the building, wheeling it off to the wings, Wilf is taken off in a wheelchair and Connie appears, dressed up to the nines, ready to go to her “new” home.  The play ends with each of the three main characters isolated in a spotlight, Wilf still in his wheelchair, telling us how their lives are now. Mam still thinks she’s in a home, Terry spends more time with Wilf, who seems to be reconciled to his situation. It’s a downbeat ending, but it works.

There were great performances all round, and some wonderfully observed dialogue, especially when Terry, alone for a moment or two, tells us what he sees in the house. It’s as if Alan Bennett was talking directly to us, and it’s understandable that the play could seem more autobiographical than it is. So a fine night out, then, even if I’ve no idea what type of play I was watching.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Office Suite – May 2007


By: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Edward Kemp

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 9th May 2007

I enjoyed this production, though not as much as I’d hoped. This was partly because I led with my chin (had too high expectations) and partly because I lived and worked through many of the changes depicted in the two plays, so some of it felt a little too close for comfort.

The first of the two plays was A Visit From Miss Prothero, originally written for Patricia Routledge, and starring the lady herself. (Both plays were written for her, actually.) It concerns a retired manager from an unspecified works, who receives a visit from one of his former assistants. He’s largely forgotten about the place, filling in his time with evening classes and a budgie. She wants to gossip about the office, as it seems to be her only life, and she finally gets him hooked in by telling him how things have changed.

It’s almost Pinterish at this point. The sense of a power struggle reaches a climax, and she wins – reminiscent of The Dumb Waiter, for example. I could relate to so much of this, having seen so many people reluctant to change when computer systems were introduced. I felt Patricia Routledge was more domineering than I’d seen before in this part. She was obviously the critical type, and this brought out the humour. Edward Petherbridge as the manager was pretty unassuming, and changed to become quite worked up as he realised his life’s achievement was not only being discarded, but surpassed by his successor! All very nicely done.

The set was typical 70s, and because the play is set in such a specific time period it didn’t seem dated as such.

Green Forms was the second play, and in this one, Patricia Routledge plays the “nicer” of the two ladies who while away their time in the office by chatting, reading the paper, having cups of tea and finding the occasional minute or two to do some work. There’s a long-running feud with Personnel over stolen wash basin plugs, and a sudden influx of requisition forms, for various items. Gradually it dawns on these two shirkers that someone will be joining them in their office, at the spare desk, and they discover, to their horror, that the lady in question’s arrival has presaged the closure of various departments around the country. The first green form that they dismissed as irrelevant was in fact to let them know she’d be coming. The play ends with her about to enter the room, so we never get to see what havoc she wreaks in this particular department.

Janet Dale was very good as the office sniper, constantly complaining about everything (she does have to look after an invalid mother, which does take it out of people). Patricia Routledge’s character is the office junior, who has better networking skills, and who manages to find out who the mystery requisitioner is. Edward Petherbridge is the messenger, who manages to keep up a running conversation with his assistant all through delivering the mail, entirely about union representation. And the office itself is one of those tatty, run-down affairs, with dodgy Venetian blinds (apparently a chopped off piece of Venetian blind will help you get into a locked drawer), missing light bulbs, broken light shades and window panes, and a  missing wash basin plug.

Good fun all round, and again a bit Pinterish, with some of that sense of being cut off from everyone else in the universe.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Habeus Corpus – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By Alan Bennett

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 19th September 2006

I found this disappointing; Alan Bennett doing Joe Orton, not really my cup of tea. The performances were excellent, as usual, and it was weird to see several actors whom we’d seen last week in Measure for Measure at the Courtyard in Stratford, appear again tonight. I hadn’t realised that the Peter Hall Company was touring two plays, so we got to see both within a week of each other.

There were some laughs, and as I say the performances were fine, but much of the writing was very dated, and some of the jokes were telegraphed minutes before they arrived. This piece could do with a good rewrite to bring it more up-to-date, or else be left in a drawer somewhere till it’s old enough to be a classic.

Good points – Barry Stanton without a beard (and I haven’t seen that before!) playing a charlady with an uncanny knack for knowing everything that’s going to happen or has happened – has she read the script? Edward Bennett was superb as Canon Throbbing, desperate to get laid, and Paul Bentall, recently the Provost inVienna, was enjoyable as a travelling artificial breast fitter who mistakes a real pair (Annette Badland’s ample bosom) for his company’s work.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at