Steadman is outstanding in revival of lost

Bennett gem

Enjoy Birmingham Repertory Theatre


It seems extraordinary that this play by Alan Bennett, arguably Britain’s most popular living dramatist, can have been so comprehensively mislaid that most people probably won’t even recognise its title.

Having disappeared after a short run in the West End in 1980, its apparent failure prompted Bennett to turn to television for a number of years. But this revival from the Theatre Royal, Bath, featuring an outstanding performance by Alison Steadman, reveals not only an interesting document of its times but a viable, if dark, comedy with many vintage Bennett lines.

The setting is his home city of Leeds, where Connie and her husband Wilfred – she suffering from memory loss, he disabled following a hit-and-run accident – are waiting to be rehoused from the last surviving row of back-to-backs.

Wilfred seems unhealthily fixated on their daughter Linda, who moves in mysterious circles in her job as a personal secretary, while we quickly gather that they are estranged from their gay son. The uneasy equilibrium of Connie and Wilfred’s relationship is soon disrupted by the arrival of a silent and mysterious young woman, apparently part of a council team monitoring the dying working class community.

The play has Bennett’s trademark blend of comedy and depression, with his sharp eye for the trivia which tell the sad story of a life of limited horizons. The army of faceless bureaucrats adds a surreal dimension which sits a little uneasily with the rest of the play, but Bennett is out to make a point about the patronising of working-class culture through the heritage industry, which I would guess was still some way from its worst excesses in 1980.

I don’t want to spoil the play for anyone who is going to see it, but director Christopher Luscombe has come up with a wonderfully theatrical final scene as Connie and Wilfred’s returned son packs them up for a new life elsewhere.

As Connie, Alison Steadman is a worthy addition to what you might call the Bennett rep company, and demonstrates why she is one of our greatest character actresses. And it’s a bonus to have the wonderful David Troughton, not as much in evidence in Stratford these days as he once was, providing the perfect foil as Wilfred.

Running time: Two hours, 40 minutes. Until Saturday.

Terry Grimley