Alan Bennett was derided for being wilfully surreal when, in 1980, this depiction was first seen of the inhabitants of one of the last back-to-backs in Leeds being transplanted along with their house to a museum park. His last laugh regarding his prophetic acuity has come at the expense of the eradication during the 1980s of the north of England's industrial culture, but Enjoy is an uncannily prescient play in many respects (although not, sadly, in its vision of the almost universal acceptance of transsexuals).
The play is gloomier and more bizarre than the Bennett we are used to: scenes in which everyone is followed around by their own mute, note-taking sociologist monitor are vaguely Ionesco-like, and several of the one-liners are as blackly hilarious as anything by Joe Orton. However, it remains driven essentially by the characters of Wilf and Connie Craven (Bernard Gallagher and Thelma Barlow) and their everyday mundanities – indeed, Connie frequently protests to the silently observing Ms. Craig that the events and dialogue before her are not "normal" and will distort the young woman's findings. When the woman in question reveals herself as their long-lost "ex-son" (indeed, disowned by Wilf), Connie takes the revelation as cheerfully as she takes everything else in the foggy stride of her incipient Alzheimer's.
Director Alan Dossor works hard to maintain the balance between laughs of familiarity and twinges of unsettlement, and is not to blame if the audience displays a bias towards the former; Julian McGowan's cramped box set, hunched modestly in the middle of the Quarry stage, is opened up to fill the space at the beginning of Act One and entirely demolished towards the end. Gallagher's Wilf is the persistent pain he should be, although with few hints of the tyrant he was in his prime, making all the more discomfiting "Ms Craig"'s cool revenge in allowing his teenage hooligan tormentor into the house. Thelma Barlow will never quite emerge from the shadow of her former alter ego, Coronation Street's Mavis Riley, but Connie has enough in common with Mavis for all concerned to feel comfortable with the arrangement. Andrina Carroll and Ken Bradshaw continue their Dossor-directed dressing-up spree (after three months playing multiple roles in a group of Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges) as sex-worker daughter Linda and "Ms Craig" respectively. If there is a problem, it is not that Bennett cannot write social commentary, but that we are reluctant to watch it as such.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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