Look back in amber

Enjoy Nottingham Playhouse
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"Be yourself: baffling injunction", remarked Alan Bennett at the start of his last TV essay. He was sitting for his portrait at the time, and made a droll show of speaking to camera through the side of his mouth like some paralysed stroke victim.

What they really want you to do when they say that, he maintained, is imitate yourself. Precisely that awkwardness - having to act naturally to order, and having to pretend that you aren't being observed when you are - takes on a surreal aspect in Bennett's 1980 play Enjoy, now arrestingly revived by Jeremy Sams at the Nottingham Playhouse.

The play tells the story of an old couple who live in one of the last back-to-back terraces in Leeds, in an area audibly vanishing under the bulldozer. Mam (an excellent, brightly wittering Anne Reid) is losing her memory; Dad (James Bolam) is disabled after a hit-and-run accident.

The challenge of performing a typical day-in-the-life arises when their achingly neat little home is infiltrated by an observer from the local council. A coiffed, grey-costumed, and programmatically mute creature, she sits around taking notes. And when neighbours pop in, they too are shadowed by silent officials.

It's all part of a council initiative to study and record the culture of these "traditional communities" so that the valuable elements in it can be preserved elsewhere. Dad is all for being moved ("Mr Craven's always been on the side of progress," his wife explains, "he had false teeth when he was 27"). Mam, on the other hand, clings to memories of when this street was "that bit classier" than the rest, and she brings out her best china as though it were in everyday use.

From one way of looking at it, both of them get what they want. Dad ends up in hospital, while Mam is allowed to live on in the back-to-back, with just one small difference: the house is no longer on its original site, but is reconstructed as an exhibit in a museum.

Enjoy flopped in 1980 when Bennett was told, he recalls, to "stick to the particularities of dialogue... I was supposed to be good at, and leave social comment to others." Viewed now, the play seems remarkable for his shrewd premonitions of the heritage industry and its dubious philosophy.

Certainly, Bennett's own art acts as an amber preservative for the stunted lives behind the net curtains, but it also subjects the idea of "community" to some salutary scepticism. The scene in which Mam and her dourly pretentious neighbour (Rhoda Lewis) attempt to lay out Dad's "dead" body is no tender Lawrentian picture of a profound traditional skill, but an uproarious demonstration of the fact that "this is the 20th century. You call in an expert", as Dad puts it, reproachfully. "You never baked. My mother baked. You never did." And it's sentimental for "heritage" to pretend otherwise.

That is why it is wrong to make a simple equation between Bennett himself and the plotting social worker who turns out to be the family's long-lost homosexual son in drag (played by Stephen Noonan).

"It sounds a work of art," says Mam, of the museum reconstruction where the son intends to put her. What stops Enjoy being the moral equivalent of this is that Bennett does not suffer from the son's falsifying illusions about the past.

"I've always thought the past was over and that I'd somehow missed it. Now it's starting all over again," says Mam wonderingly. But she is also bewildered, as her home spectacularly becomes a trendy museum object, in one of the most haunting and ambivalent endings to a play that I' have ever seen.

n 'Enjoy' to 13 May (Booking: 0115-941 9419)