Alan Bennett’s 1980 play, first seen in this fine production by Christopher Luscombe at the Theatre Royal Bath last August, just gets darker and bleaker. Funny isn’t really the word any more, and Luscombe’s suggestion that we take the title as an invitation (in a speech from the stage before curtain-up) seems, in retrospect, somewhat to smack of sarcasm.
With - on press night - most London musicals shut down by the snow and the West End resembling a ghost town, you felt punished enough already by just turning up. And then the highly charged performances of Alison Steadman and David Troughton as Connie and Wilfred Craven (habitually known to each other as “Mam” and “Dad”) take us to the limits of farce until the play freezes into a Beckettian landscape of senility and isolation.
The Cravens are being fingered by the authorities as typical working-class Yorkshire folk whose house will become a museum as the old area in Leeds is demolished. Dad is the victim of a hit-and-run driver who disowns his son who’s been rendered effeminate by education and yearns for his daughter whose life as a personal secretary is not quite what it seems.
That son sits by the side of the stage as a silent observer in a grey suit. He’s on duty from the council to inculcate neighbourly values and check out the plausibility of his own parents as museum pieces. He’s part of an army of time and motion men who finally invade the stage and dismantle Janet Bird’s marvellous, last ditch design of stained glass, flying ducks, patterned wallpaper and cheap furniture.
With a local yob (Peter McGovern) urinating through the letterbox, daughter Linda (Josie Walker) having sex on the floor with the chauffeur (Mark Killeeen) who’s taking her for a Saudi Arabian marital audition in the Queen’s Hotel, and Mam and nosy neighbour Mrs Clegg (Carol Macready) laying out a supposedly dead Dad and discovering his liveliness down below, the show makes Joe Orton look like Listen with Mother.
Luscombe’s production makes a strong case for Enjoy being Bennett’s most radical play, characteristically witty while pushing theatrical boundaries. Steadman quivers brilliantly with mock sensitivity and the songs of Ivor Novello, while Troughton threatens to explode with physical rage until subsiding into tragic insensibility. And Richard Glaves as their lost son closes each act with two of the most moving speeches on the modern stage.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from August 2008 and this production's original dates at the Theatre Royal Bath.
Alan Bennett once said, with typical self-deprecation, that Enjoy, his 1980 comedy of cultural dislocation and filial revenge, could be more accurately titled “Endure.”
He was right in that the play is fairly tough to sit through. Not because it is tedious, but because it taps so painfully on our fears of dealing with aged parents, the disappearance of recognisable communities, the encroachment of the nanny state, incontinence and amnesia.
Wilfred and Connie Craven – Mam and Dad – live in the last back-to-back in Leeds. The area is being decimated, and they are visited by “an observer” in a grey suit with a view to being resettled in a home, or heritage-style recreation of this one. The silent, note-taking Ms Craig is their own son in drag. Their mostly absent daughter – they’re not sure whether she’s in Sweden or Swindon – is an international sex worker.
So the play is ambivalent anyway about the value of what is being lost. Christopher Luscombe’s production for the Peter Hall Company’s summer season in Bath (playing until the end of the month, then touring) pulls no punches, so the excesses of stupidity and ignorance on show can be quietly taken to be signs of quirkiness, even quaintness.
This makes the play even funnier, especially in the beautiful performances of Alison Steadman and David Troughton as Mam and Dad. She is a chattering airhead, with a memory only for the songs of Ivor Novello; he’s a big blob of boredom with no time for anyone who’s educated (ie, his own son, the Bennett character, played with insouciant finesse by Richard Glaves) and an incomplete relationship with daughter Linda (Josie Walker, hilariously brazen).
Enjoy was never one of Bennett’s biggest West End hits (the original starred Joan Plowright and Colin Blakely) but it is a uniquely sour and prophetic comedy and more like Joe Orton than any other of his plays. The laying out of the corpse – springing a surprise erection on everyone, including Carol Macready’s unfazed nosy neighbour -- is one of the most shocking scenes in modern drama, but one of the funniest, too.
Luscombe’s revival, niftily designed by Janet Bird and cunningly lit by Paul Pyant, is a superb reinstatement of a play with much to say and plenty of uncomfortable laughs; Leeds, Bradford and Halifax are on their last legs and, as always in Bennett, affection is subsumed in spikily critical condescension. The West End surely beckons.