Alan Bennett

The Madness of King George


National Theatre Live

This adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed 1991 play, a co-production between The National Theatre and the Nottingham Playhouse, stars Mark Gatiss as George III, the much-loved and admired monarch whose reign was nearly destroyed by a protracted battle with mental illness. We now know that George suffered from porphyria, a condition that comes with a whole raft of punishing symptoms – and it’s clear from the outset that the illness itself is worsened by the ill-informed efforts of the court physicians, who set about inflicting a whole series of what can only be described as tortures on the luckless monarch. They bleed him, they ply him with laxatives, they even spill boiling hot wax onto his head and back, convinced that these remedies will drive out his ‘ill humours.’  Little wonder, then, that their efforts are instrumental in pushing the king deeper into delirium. Bennett’s script walks a perilous tightrope between hilarity and the full blown tragedy of watching a man degraded and humbled in front of his family and his courtiers. 

It’s only when Prime Minister William Pitt (Nicholas Bishop) engages the services of Doctor Willis (Adrian Scarborough) that a possible light appears on the horizon. Willis’s approach to the problem is a tough, rigorous routine that seems more appropriate to the breaking of a horse than the nurturing of a stricken human being but, against all the odds, it starts to pay dividends.

Meanwhile, the Whigs see the king’s situation as an opportunity to oust Pitt’s Tories by allying themselves to the ambitious Prince of Wales (Wilf Scolding), who longs for some kind of power and doesn’t mind how he gets it.

This is a handsomely mounted production, which takes off at a gallop and never allows the pace to flag. Each scene segues effortlessly to the next and there’s solid work from the supporting cast, but this is essentially an opportunity for Gatiss to shine and he rises to the challenge with considerable aplomb, managing to bring out George’s innate likeability even as he is reduced to a gibbering, gesticulating wreck by his steadily mounting symptoms.

This is an object lesson in how to present a period piece. Everything here – the costumes, the sets, the actors’ comic timing, the machinations of the various political players, is presented with absolute authority and skilfully directed by Adam Penford.

It’s often said that fact is stranger than fiction and The Madness of King George seems to illustrate this point perfectly. 

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney


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


The Lady In The Van



Based on Alan Bennett’s memoir and adapted from his 1999 West End play, The Lady In The Van features Alex Jennings as the great man himself, and is the true story of Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), an elderly transient who parked her beaten up old Bedford van in Bennett’s driveway and ended up staying there for fifteen years. The film’s a total delight, offering Maggie Smith a gift of a role as the obstinate, curmudgeonly and sometimes downright rude, Miss Shepherd, while Jennings’ assured turn as Bennett is so much more than just an uncannily accurate impersonation; indeed, here we get two Alan Bennetts for the price of one – the man who writes about his life and the one who actually lives it. With this simple but brilliant device, the film has a lot to say about the very nature of writing and the way in which real events are sometimes adapted for the purposes of entertainment. ‘But that didn’t really happen,’ writer Bennett will occasionally announce, like some glum member of a Greek chorus lurking in the background.

The story opens with a brief glimpse into Miss Shepherd’s past, the single traumatic event that initiated her deterioration into vagrancy, and then we witness her arrival in the street in Camden Town where Bennett has just purchased a house. We meet the other inhabitants of the street and witness their reactions to having this tragic creature parked nearby, an interesting mixture of liberal guilt and open disgust. Miss Shepherd’s toiletry arrangements are rudimentary to say the very least, while her open disdain for anyone who tries to help her, would probably move Ghandi to violence.

There’s so much to enjoy here. Bennett’s wry asides are sometimes cripplingly funny, Maggie Smith gives a triumphant performance in a role she was born to play and there are cameos from some big names, including one from each of the boys in the film of The History Boys. While much of the emphasis is on comedy, the film’s latter stages are deeply affecting and more sensitive viewers may find they have occasional recourse to a pack of tissues, and yet the script easily resists cheap sentiment.

Perfectly judged, beautifully acted and cannily scripted, there’s really not much here to criticise – just plenty to enjoy.

5 Stars

Philip Caveney