REVIEW: The Habit of Art

One of the best plays you will see in Cambridge this year

Alan Bennett Cantab review the habit of art Theatre University of Cambridge

Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art is a hard play to stage. The balance between comedy and sincerity, actors playing actors, and the controversial topics discussed could doom any uncommitted production. Luckily this production rose to the challenge and more, providing a brilliantly executed evening of entertainment.

This play’s central concept is of it being a play-within-a-play. A group of actors are rehearsing scenes from a fictional play about the relationship between W.H Auden and Benjamin Britten. The contrast between the modernity of the rehearsal space and the set dressing for the internal play was successful in driving the humour forward in this very funny play. This could quickly become a gimmick, but director Isaac Jordan has triumphed in this production. The staging and the cast work together with the natural engagement of the actors with the set maintaining fluid and organic performances that left the audience constantly engaged.

John Tothill as Fitz/Auden

John Tothill as Fitz/Auden

Special commendation goes to John Tothill, playing Fitz and Auden. He struck the perfect balance between creating a character simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic, likeable and unlikable. His comedic timing was exceptional, and dominated the stage even amongst a very strong cast. In their roles as Kay and Assistant Stage Manager respectively, Isobel Laidler and Louisa Keight were a perfect duo. Laidler’s exasperated dedication hilariously played off against Keight’s enthusiastic incompetency. Their performance as talking furniture (which can only be properly understood by seeing it) had the audience in loud laughter for the whole scene. The overall cast were consistently strong, clearly very talented actors. Everyone resisted falling into stereotype, successfully created a believable array of characters, and they had no difficultly switching from their roles as “actors” to “characters”.

Isobel Laidler as Kay and Elise Hagan as the Author

Isobel Laidler as Kay and Elise Hagan as the Author

This play is almost worth seeing solely for the set. From Auden’s cavernous sitting room to the coffee and Sainsbury’s biscuit laden production table, the intricacy of props and production played a major role in enabling the naturalism of this very stylistic production to be centre stage. Lighting and sound equally were perfect and emphasised the emotion in this play, adding dimension to a production that ran the risk of being a one-dimensional comedy. The inventiveness and attention to detail of the technical team is worthy of massive credit.

Tothill, Tim Vaughan as Henry/Britten and Jamie Robson as Tim/Stuart

Tothill, Tim Vaughan as Henry/Britten and Jamie Robson as Tim/Stuart

The only negative would be that the first half went on for slightly too long, but the second half picked up in action enough to compensate fully and as the cast were fantastic to watch throughout both halves it really is a minor criticism. No doubt as the run continues the pacing will become swifter.

The Habit of Art is an incredibly polished and beautifully acted production, and undoubtedly one of the best plays you will see in Cambridge this year.

4.5 stars