The Habit of Art


Original Theatre Company

In the normal run of things we would have been seeing this at the King’s Theatre just a few days ago, and basing our review around that performance. But these are very far from normal times and, consequently, this revival of Alan Bennett’s 2009 production, directed by Philip Franks, can now be accessed directly from The Original Theatre Company’s website for just a few pounds.

Ostensibly a play about the odd friendship between WH Auden (Matthew Kelly) and Benjamin Britten (David Yelland), The Habit of Art is made more interesting by allowing the audience to be observers at a rehearsal for the play, taking place in a scruffy church hall. We are afforded an insider’s view complete with all the mistakes, digressions and conflicts that exist in such situations. In effect, each actor is portraying not just the character they embody in the biographical play, but also the actor who portrays that character – which probably makes this sound a lot more complicated than it actually is. Don’t worry, the metatheatre all falls into place.

Auden, in the latter years of his career, has been reduced to living in rooms at his college in Oxford, where he meets occasional friends and regularly entertains rent boys, who supply him with his daily bout of fellatio. He is unexpectedly visited by his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter (whom he briefly mistakes for that day’s supplier of sexual favours), and later by Britten, whom Benjamin hasn’t seen for thirty years and is keen to discuss his latest project, a planned adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. (Mann, incidentally, was Auden’s Father-in-law.)

Bennett has a lot of fun dealing with the subject of homosexuality, still illegal in the 1970s when this play is set, and the secret that drove these two great artists. Auden talks much about the titular habit – how creative minds are constantly disposed to creating work, long after any real need to do so has vanished from their lives, and the moment when he seizes upon the desperate hope that Britten is thinking of offering him a collaboration is the play’s pivotal scene. Both Kelly and Yelland offer assured performances, and they are well supported by Veronica Roberts as the ever capable stage manager, Kay, and by John Wark as Donald, who can’t quite rid himself of the notion that, in playing Humphrey Carpenter, he’s actually nothing but a ‘device.’

This witty and engaging performance, even when condensed onto our tiny screen at home, is worth seeking out, but it makes me long to have seen it in the theatre, where it really belongs. Still, interested parties will find it at

4 stars

Philip Caveney


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