Geilgud Theatre, London
11 April 2009 (Matinee)
Enjoy without question!
Alan Bennett is without question one of Britain’s best-loved and brilliant playwrights. Alison Steadman is without question one of Britain’s best-loved and brilliant actresses. Both have the most wonderful talent to make the nuances of the ordinary, very, very funny whilst at the same time, make you realise that these nuances are sometimes also very, very sad. So, to experience both in one afternoon, with one acting out the other’s words, is a pure joy!
This is what happens at the Gielgud Theatre in ‘Enjoy’, a play that Bennett wrote in the 80s, and which has rarely seen the light of day since. (Although I did see and enjoy it in Watford two years ago!) It was critically mauled when it was first performed but that hasn’t happened this time around – probably because Bennett was way ahead of his time and people can now relate to it more. In fact, this current production was actually the highest grossing Alan Bennett play in the West End on advance sales – ever!
‘Enjoy’ looks at life in 1980s’ Leeds and how modern life was changing. Some, like Wilf, want to change with the times while others, like Connie, want to hold onto the past – as she comments, “Mr Craven [Wilf] has always been on the side of progress. He had false teeth at 27″!
And that’s the underlying theme for the whole play – not the false teeth, but the disagreement.
Long suffering elderly couple Mam/Connie, (Steadman) and Dad/Wilf (David Troughton) bicker and reminisce about better times in front of a “visitor”, who sits in the corner documenting their life for reasons that become clear as the play moves on.
Mam tries to show this observer that they are acting completely normally, while clearly they are not. She brings out the best china that they never use, an act brutally exposed by Dad. But this simple act of not doing what they normally do hides the fact that they really ARE an unusual family. And while in many plays, the bickering of a couple who have been together for years often disguises deep underlying affection – you get the feeling with these to that they don’t really like each other at all, they are just used to each other!
This is a couple out of love, confined to their home together, despising each other more every day, and wishing their kids would come back and stay. But it soon becomes clear that the reasons that they don't are complex and often very dark.
No one in the play is really what they first appear to be and that makes the whole experience thrilling and completely unpredictable. But it’s also very funny, it’s all laced with memorable Bennett one liners and numerous laugh out loud moments.
He excels at the observation of the ludicrous – although you don’t realise that things are ridiculous until he points them out. Why did I find the line “I always knew he’d be a student – I could see him opening a bank account wearing a scarf” so funny? Because Mr Bennett made me remember those adverts for student accounts and made me wonder why on earth I didn’t think that their portrayal of a stereotypical student was preposterous the first time around!
But like all classic Bennett, one minute you’re laughing and the next you’re gasping in shock. This wouldn’t be Bennett without the undercurrents of more serious issues like child molestation, prostitution, homosexuality and wife beating. But all of these issues make the narrative much more real and hard hitting, however surreal it gets.
As the play draws to a close there is an Orwellian Big Brother feel to proceedings and you could see why people in the 80s might not have got it. These days the audience is far more used to the idea not only of clinging on to your childhood and a better time but also people watching you as you live your life!
Alison Steadman is wonderful as she changes from being hilarious to moving in the space of a sentence and she is complemented perfectly by Troughton as Wilf. They both give the production a chemistry and pathos it truly required to make it work.
Carol Macready is Mrs Clegg in a riotously funny, but sadly quite brief, scene, just as she did at Watford, and Josie Walker as their brassy and seemingly hard-hearted daughter Linda also reprises her role with great aplomb.
Is it uncomfortable viewing? Sometimes yes – not least because both Mr FB and I could see, in Connie and Wilf, a potential future of forgetting what each other has said, rubbing each others frail limbs and reminding each other when to go for a wee (the memory loss part is already there!) But is it satisfying viewing? Absolutely no question!