The Habit of Art/Malvern Theatres

PLAYWRIGHT Dennis Potter spent the last years of his life enjoying total immunity from artistic scrutiny.

His last work - Black Eyes – was a monumental heap of trite, deluded schoolboy potting shed fantasy.

But he had become theatrical royalty and was therefore untouchable. To even hint at criticism was tantamount to blasphemy.

Alan Bennett’s not quite in the same league but he’s certainly getting pretty close. For the man who gave us Talking Heads is now giving us… Talking Dirty.

Bennett likes to shock. Fine. But society can no longer be shocked, we have all long been desensitised.

Actors may deliver streams of verbiage about gay sex and body bits, as if they enjoy equal standing with elegies in country churchyards, but stripped down, it’s still toilet wall stuff.

However, this shouldn’t put you off a production which, although occasionally struggling to breathe through a surface film of murk, nevertheless is permeated with some brilliant moments.

Basically, it’s a play within a play, set in a rehearsal room where a theatre company is running through a piece titled Caliban’s Day, a sort of continuation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Matthew Kelly is Fitz, who’s playing the poet W H Auden. He’s a disgusting individual who relieves himself in the sink, quite obviously sleeps in his clothes, and has a face like slowly melting rubber.

Kelly’s masterly portrayal of the poet in later days is only matched by David Yelland as Henry, in the role of Auden’s chum, the composer Benjamin Britten.

The first half is rather cluttered with sub-dramas. But from then on, this play gets into gear as the two men pour out their hearts to each other, both dreading the nightmare decline of their respective creative muses.

Kelly and Yelland make for a wonderful double act, somehow rising above the public schoolboy distractions of dropped trousers and endless bike shed banter.

The Habit of Art is thoroughly engaging theatre although it might be too much for sensitive souls. It runs until Saturday (December 1).

John Phillpott