Enjoy, Theatre Royal, Bath
Tuesday 26 August 2008
Alan Bennett's Enjoy was not enjoyed by the undiscerning critics, and flopped when first presented in 1980. It has since been acknowledged as a play that's not just wildly funny but also weirdly prescient of the soon-to-be-booming heritage industry, and of all the dishonesties and contradictions inherent in that.
Of course, we critics aren't averse to showing off our capacity for a change of heart, so there's always the danger that the underrated will suddenly become the overrated. But watching Christopher Luscombe's hugely entertaining revival, I think that Enjoy will firmly establish itself as one of Bennett's wittiest and most discomfiting plays.
It's a piece that literally brings the house down – in the shape of one of the last undemolished back-to-back domiciles in Leeds, which is dismantled near the end, then exactly reconstructed in a theme park. The museum guard is Connie (Alison Steadman, in a performance of astonishing comic energy and emotional subtlety). She has lived there all her married life, when the house was (so to speak) a twilit home rather than a Sunset Home achieved by deceitful means. Now bewildered by Alzheimer's, she's the unwitting chatelaine of the reconstruction, receiving the visitors she never had in her former life, stunted as it was by her disabled husband (well played by the slightly miscast David Troughton).
The person who has whisked her to this authentic facsimile is her gay son, now a woman – Terry aka Terri aka Kim (sensitive, sinister Richard Glaves). He enters the play disguised as a social worker sent by the council to observe and record the behaviour of the old couple for the records.
The conversations I overheard among audience members on the way out were all about the strange sexuality in the play. But it isn't strange and, for me, it's the least interesting aspect. The glory of it is Bennett's hilarious take on how being observed changes the nature of the activity observed, and his endlessly equivocal attitude to the preservation of the past. For me, the set lets on instantly the degree to which this is a fantastical piece, which is a mistake.
But Steadman's Connie is wonderful – so touching in the gusto with which she gets into the swing of having an observer. The obligation to be "typical" is unnerving, but it's better on the whole than going unnoticed. Her little smiles of misplaced complicity with the silent, note-taking social worker are, well, so beautifully observed. Enjoy will be a joy forever.
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