On the day following my conversation with James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Alan Bennett celebrated his 80th birthday. But, as Brining explained, that is just a fortunate coincidence, not the reason behind the Playhouse’s Alan Bennett Season:
"I’m interested in looking at a writer across a range of his or her work – it’s a good thing for a theatre like this which has different spaces. Bennett seemed an obvious choice to start with. I’ve spoken before about wanting to do work about the city and there is great affection for him within Leeds. When I came here, I made myself more familiar with his work and I was impressed by its range and diversity. Enjoy, which I am directing, really engaged me – I found it a fascinating piece of writing."
Enjoy, which opens the season on 19 May is certainly not what one thinks of as typical Bennett – I can remember finding it challenging and puzzling in the previous Playhouse production 15 years ago:
"It’s quite a dark play, even though it’s got funny things in it. Bennett’s reputation is more of a warm, cuddly, comfortable writer, but this is not like that. It’s unsparing in its examination of themes like ageing, feelings about parents and the ways in which ordinary lives become used by the entertainment industry. It constantly subverts audience expectation and is anything but comfortable. In many ways it’s like a thriller – you think, ‘What is happening? What’s at the heart of this?’"
Untold Stories, directed by Mark Rosenblatt, may be seen in some ways as more typical Bennett territory, more "comfortable" in Brining’s words, dealing with an Armley childhood, but the presentation is anything but conventional. The first of two short plays, Hymn, sees Reece Dinsdale playing Bennett in a solo performance with string quartet playing "elegant peaceful elegiac music" by George Fenton.
Last year, at the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner put Hymn together with Cocktail Sticks as a double bill under the title Untold Stories. Once again in the second play Bennett, as played by Reece Dinsdale, appears, but this time alongside his mother and father. When I comment on Bennett’s tendency to include himself in his plays, Brining comes up with a telling phrase:
"He’s a very present writer. His voice is very present. Even in Enjoy, which is not his life, he permeates the work in a refined form."
The more Brining explains what the season will consist of, the more it becomes clear that this is a genuine festival, rather than just a series of plays by Bennett. After two slightly unusual plays, the third is getting onto very familiar territory – three of the Talking Heads monologues, though not the most familiar of all, Cream Cracker under the Settee – but here the venues make for a distinctive production. Again directed by Brining, Talking Heads – two of them featuring actors from the Enjoy company – plays in the 190-seater Barber Studio at the Playhouse for two weeks, but then ventures out to community centres and YMCAs throughout the city:
"It’s not just about the play, it’s about setting up ongoing relationships with different parts of the city. We’re setting up a scheme of community ambassadors who will come here, get to know us and become advocates for us in their communities. And we hope to take out other shows and workshops in the future. Of course the staging of Talking Heads will be very simple, but it’s all about taking brilliant actors and great work into areas of the city that might not normally see our work. We’re planning also to take the plays into people’s houses. We’re hoping to do all three on the same night in different houses, with people just inviting their friends to see the play."
The intention is to let Leeds’ favourite playwright take over the Playhouse for a season, so the project doesn’t stop with the three plays of the Bennett Season. Betty Blue Eyes, a musical not by Bennett, but based on his film A Private Function, is a big West End musical with a cast of nearly 20. So the way to bring it to Leeds has been by co-production with the Mercury Theatre, Colchester (where it opened in March), Salisbury Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman. And other events abound at the Playhouse, including Bennett himself being interviewed by Brining and a Pie and a Pint performance of a new monologue set in Armley which is a contemporary response to Talking Heads.
Asked for a last word on the Alan Bennett Season, James Brining again comes back to Leeds and his delight in work that so reflects the city. This is regional theatre par excellence: Leeds-born writer drawing his subject matter from the city, Leeds-born director, and an initiative to take theatre throughout the city – even into people’s front rooms.
Enjoy: Quarry Theatre, 19 May – 7 June
Untold Stories: Courtyard Theatre, 2 – 21 June
Talking Heads: Barber Studio, 23 June – 5 July
Betty Blue Eyes: Quarry Theatre, 11 June – 5 July