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Review: The Habit of Art at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

He may be advancing in age, but 50 years on after Forty Years On, Armley’s finest (and trademarked ‘National Treasure’) Alan Bennett is having something of a purple patch at the theatre box office.

His latest play Allelujah! was staged by Nick Hytner at The Bridge this summer, while Nottingham Playhouse is about to revive The Madness of King George with Mark Gatiss as the titular monarch.

And now the Original Theatre Company is touring with Bennett’s 2009 multi-layered musing on life, death, love, friendship, rivalry….and men’s genitalia, The Habit of Art, complete with an all-together cracking cast.

The construct is almost fiendishly complicated, and yet also quite simple. Bennett’s cast play actors playing characters in a fictional stage play, penned by a fictional writer, about a fictional encounter between the real-life poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten in the autumn of their years.

Rivalries, insecurities, tears, tantrums and occasional radiant moments manifest themselves as the exasperating (and exasperated) actors embark on a run through of ‘Caliban’s Day’ against the backdrop of designer Adrian Linford’s keen-eyed recreation of a hundred shabby rehearsal spaces.

In the play within the play, it’s 1972 and Auden (Matthew Kelly) has found a roost at his alma mater Christ Church where he’s visited, variously, by his future biographer Humphrey Carpenter (John Walk playing actor Donald who is desperate to be more than a plot device), a rent boy (Benjamin Chandler), and by Britten (David Yelland) who is agonising over his new opera Death in Venice and seeking reassurance from his old friend/foe.

The Habit of Art. Photos by Helen Maybanks

There’s a lot going on, sometimes too much it feels as the action spirals off in different directions, the script a soupy mix of dryly witty, laugh-out-loud funny and overly-arch and clever, and packed with more knob gags than is perhaps all together necessary.

While the machinations of the various actors are entertaining, it’s the delicious verbal sparring between Auden and Britten (their meeting delayed until five minutes before the end of the first half) which is where the most dramatically and emotionally engrossing moments come.

Everyman alumnus Kelly and stage veteran Yelland are marvellous as the two ageing creatives, driven on by ‘the habit of art’ – and a shared appreciation of the young male form, but who while sharing a similar vulnerability, are very different characters.

Matthew Kelly (Auden) and David Yelland (Britten) in The Habit of Art. Photo Helen Maybanks

Kelly, whose previous work includes Hector in The History Boys, physically dominates his scenes as ac-TOR Fitz/Auden, a shambling, loud, tetchily lugubrious - but, equally, childlike and euphoric - presence. Yelland is less flamboyant but equally compelling as actor Henry/Britten, a fastidious, emotionally repressed foil to Fitz/Auden’s filterless wordsmith.

It’s a theatrical treat to watch these two master craftsmen at work, and it’s in this two-hander – as it ranges from idea to idea and subject to subject - where The Habit of Art’s voice is at its strongest and most satisfying.

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