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Review Round-up: Bennett Enjoys Plaudits at Last

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Critics braved the wintry elements on Monday (2 February, previews from 27 January) to catch the opening night of Enjoy at the Gielgud theatre, Alan Bennett's working class comedy which was a famous “flop” when it premiered in 1980.

Christopher Luscombe's current revival has flown in the face of Enjoy's previous failure, opening to widespread critical acclaim at the Theatre Royal Bath last year, and having enjoyed a hugely successful national tour prior to its West End transfer (See News, 22 Sep 2008).

The play is set in the playwright’s home town of Leeds, where an ageing couple living in the city’s last, and soon-to-be-demolished back-to-back are soon to be re-housed in a modern maisonette. When a sociologist comes to observe them in their daily life, normality takes a decidedly atypical turn. Alison Steadman and David Troughton lead a cast that also includes Carol Macready, Josie Walker and Richard Glaves.

The reaction of the overnight critics was in stark contrast to that of their forebears nearly 30 years ago. “Devastating”, “extraordinary” and “wonderfully funny” were among the superlatives chosen to welcome Luscombe's revival. It wasn't all good news, with some labelling the play “too long” and “forced”. But the “highly charged” performances of principals Steadman and Troughton helped compensate for any grumblings about what the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer deemed a “modern classic”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Alan Bennett’s 1980 play … 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 … The highly charged performances of Alison Steadman and David Troughton as Connie and Wilfred Craven … take us to the limits of farce until the play freezes into a Beckettian landscape of senility and isolation … 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.”
  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (three stars) - “Beneath his cuddly Winnie the Pooh persona, Alan Bennett is a vicious social satirist. Here, drawing on his own Leeds working class background, he turns his beady eye on heritage culture, as an elderly couple, Connie and Wilfred Craven, wait in their Leeds back-to-back for the bulldozers to demolish their old lives and the town planners to lead them to their new flat … Bennett's play was not a success when it premiered in 1980. Even its own author christened it 'Endure' rather than Enjoy. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. It is still too long, even in this snipped version, and there are other difficulties of tone that Christopher Luscombe's production fails to address … The final ten minutes are devastating and memorable; the rest is comic but curiously untroubling.”
  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Alan Bennett has always kept a foot in the past and left more than a bit of his heart and soul there too. So it is no surprise that this extraordinary, expressionistic comedy in which Bennett looks back in regret and amusement to the decline of working class Leeds in the Seventies and to the lives of a married couple, not unlike his parents, should prove such an unusual pleasure today. Its West End premiere in 1980 was rated a failure. Christopher Luscombe’s imaginative production … revels in Enjoy’s inventive strangeness, reveals it as a nostalgic comedy whose time has come. Bennett’s surreal, satirical conceit, … imaginatively anticipates the theme park and heritage Britain of today … A high and serious comedy.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “When Alan Bennett's Enjoy first opened in 1980 it received rotten reviews and closed within weeks … Almost 30 years on, however, the piece now seems like an astonishingly prescient, blackly comic modern classic … Bennett is so routinely regarded as a national treasure that it is easy to forget how sharp and spiky his work can be, worlds removed from his cosy image. In this play, which was viewed as a piece of dodgy theatrical Absurdism by critics when it opened, he anticipates such developments as the burgeoning heritage industry, official snooping into private lives, and even reality television shows. And though it is often wonderfully funny, Enjoy is also strange, sad and disturbing … It's great to see justice finally being done to one of the richest and most original of all Alan Bennett's plays.”
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (three stars) - “The cast attack the material with relish. But the bleak view of humanity, in which frustration, despair and delusion underlie every aspect of family life, sits heavily alongside Bennett's stylistic audacity … The play's absurdism — the identically dressed observers, the blithe treatment of death and prostitution and paralysis — makes this a play of ideas, not emotions. With so many changes of gear, it's not clear what the rules are, and when anything is possible, nothing matters very much, and the characters' callousness starts to cloy … There's real pain in here, alongside some good gags and a vivid snapshot of harsh industrial life slipping into the speciousness of the service economy. But, by Bennett's standards, it all feels too forced. I can't deny the passion and the inventiveness of it, but I didn't really enjoy.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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