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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Enjoy
Gielgud Theatre Spring 2009

Enjoy is Alan Bennett trying to be Joe Orton.

Because he's Alan Bennett, the play is frequently warm and funny in unexpected and skewed ways. Because he's not Joe Orton, the attempts at being outrageous, the flirtations with bad taste and the stabs at political comment almost all misfire or fall flat.

I suspect that there's a very delicate balance here, and if the elements that work outweigh the missteps for you, you'll come away satisfied. I was too repeatedly aware of the sour notes for the evening to succeed.

The play, written in 1980, depicts an older Leeds couple about to be rehoused from their slum home to a new estate when the city decides that they represent a disappearing world and sends in a sociologist to silently observe their daily lives in the old environment. One source of humour, then, is that they can't be natural in the presence of this interloper (who will turn out to have a secret identity you will guess at least an hour before it is revealed), and inevitably start playing to her in comic ways.

Meanwhile, they are both so limited in vision and imagination that they can't see that their daughter is a slut or that there is anything odd about having a stranger watch their every move.

That blindness is implicitly Ortonesque, as is having one character appear to be casually murdered halfway through, leading to some farcical manhandling of the body and untoward sexual interest in it. The city's ultimate decision of what to do with them bristles with Orton's brand of both anger and absurdity.

Or it would if Bennett were inclined toward (or capable of) Orton's anger. Ultimately the play likes these characters - all of them - too much to laugh too cruelly at them, so too many scenes that should have the cool objectivity of farce are a little too real and thus touched by either sourness or sadness.

It is inherently funny that the woman is losing her memory and has to be told the same simple things over and over, but we are reminded too many times that this was her mother's first step toward senility. There's a lot of physical comedy in lugging that apparent corpse around, but because we suspect it isn't dead, and aren't too surprised when it revives only to be paralysed for life, our laughter turns uncomfortable.

And the play's ending, with one character condemned to hospital, another to a kind of human zoo, and the rest just cut off from any roots or connection, feels more like the tragicomic Talking Heads Bennett would later write than like the conclusion of a knockabout farce.

None of this is a criticism of the actors or of director Christopher Luscombe, who do more than you might think possible (and more than the unsuccessful 1980 production managed) to keep the play from falling apart, making its strongest elements work and doing all that can be done with its weakest.

Alison Steadman finds all the comedy and much of the pathos in a woman of almost terminal stupidity, and almost succeeds in making them fit together. David Troughton is generally cast as straight man to the others, anchoring the play in a reality that serves the Bennettish warmth if not quite fitting the Ortonesque absurdity.

Solid support comes from Richard Glaves, Josie Walker and Carol Macready, though each in different styles that serve one aspect of the play or another, but not all.

Ultimately, for me, the sadness and sourness and misfired jokes outweigh the parts that succeed, and Enjoy feels like the flawed work of a master working too far outside his natural voice and comfort zone.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Enjoy - Gielgud 2009