Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Enjoy, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Review: Enjoy, West Yorkshire Playhouse

Published in The Telegraph, 25.05.2014

Enjoy flopped so famously the first time out that Alan Bennett suggested Endure might make a more appropriate title. While the play was vindicated five years ago by an acclaimed revival that reached the West End, Bennett wasn’t entirely wrong: it is a play that needs sticking with.

The merits of the play lie in the way it collapses genre; what starts as cosy, familiar and sluggish grim-up-north naturalism gives way to something smarter and much stranger. You think you’re watching one sort of play, only to find a wrecking ball knocking its entire structure apart.

The play is about circling bulldozers itself. Mam and Dad’s life-long home, a Leeds back-to-back, is slated for demolition. New maisonettes – la-di-da – are ready as places they can be rehoused, much to Dad’s delight, but Mam, grappling with early-stage Alzheimer’s, just wants everything as it is and always has been. Why change a lifestyle that’s suited them just fine for so long?

It is their endangered way of life – supposedly all community spirit and cups of tea – that draws council sociologist Ms Craig and her notebook. She’s clearly a man in drag – Rob Delaney is light-footed and broad-shouldered – though if anyone notices, no-one comments. Every neighbour has an own observer of their own, all studying a species in its natural habitat trying its best to act naturally – and often failing.

James Brining’s production – the opener in a celebratory Bennett season – swaps those notebooks for television cameras. If Bennett was aiming at the heritage industry, Brining is gunning for reality TV, from 1974’s The Family to Benefits Street. Philip Martin Brown’s scurrilous Dad rants at the cameras, while Marlene Sidaway’s soft-centred Mam tries to show their best side.

Brining pushes this far enough – extending Bennett’s coup de théâtre into brilliance – for reality to crumble into Truman Show-style artifice. It forces you to ask: who’s calling the shots and why, and whether anyone really wants social change at all. Echoes of GCHQ bounce around too.

However, Alex Lowde’s studio-sitcom design puts the whole thing into quotation marks from the off and Brining cannot entirely fix the script’s problems. Enjoy is still stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster. Component parts – Ms Craig’s gender, Mam’s memory, an Orton-lite routine involving a stiff with a stiffie – sit together at jaunty angles and Bennett can’t resist a gag either, which jars with the play’s anger. That is a pity because it’s rare to see Bennett with his teeth bared and his guts on show.

Photograph: West Yorkshire Playhouse

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