I’m breathing hard. The hillside is a mass of tumbled rocks, like a set of ill-shaped marbles that some troll has just cast down the slope. If I could, I might hear the fall of water nearby, some rain swollen force or the creak and caw of the wind-battered birdlife or, if neither are present then the wind itself, whistling and whispering as it hunts out angles and narrows, round and through which to rush.
Instead, as another droplet of sweat darkens my T-Shirt my concentration is fixed on the words pouring into my ears. I have an early version of a tape walkman, playing a monologue by Alan Bennett. A Woman Of No Importance. Patricia Routledge’s delivery of Bennett’s words, which are some of the most powerful and poignant in the English language, is a delight. The stark, desolate landscape of High Street in the Lake District with its sharp valley up from Ennerdale and daunting slopes seems a perfect setting for something which is both deeply sad and strangely life affirming.
I’d known about Bennett before this. But his words were, for me, while often deadpan and occasionally downbeat, essentially played for laughs. His sketches were microcosms of genius. His ‘Norwich’ remains a favourite.
Here, though, I was finding a man with a wider and deeper talent, well known already to many but new to me.
After that I was entranced by hit upon hit: The History Boys; The Lady In The Van; The Habit of Art; the brilliant Single Spies; Kafka’s Dick; The Madness of George III. I saw them all on stage around London. I laughed, I wept and I became a total devotee.
When I heard he had collaborated with Nicholas Hytner again, this time on a play about the elderly, I had to go. With a track record like that, you don’t do second thoughts.
I heard them discuss it on the radio, the musical-cum-musical hall elements, the prescient script of a nurse under the pressure of quotas and bed blocking and reacting in ways both understandable and appalling, the vagaries of the treatment dolled out and the failures of so much of our social care. It’s of the moment as is so much Bennett. This is the blurb…
And how did it go? To be honest it was a curate’s egg. I laughed out loud at some of it and the story with its late twist was well told. The musical numbers were beautifully and often comically done.
But what always singled Bennett out was his humanity, his way of making you care about his characters, even those who you’d instinctively think could not garner sympathy. His plays kept you in edge, because so often you’d be laughing and then realise that laughter wasn’t any longer the appropriate response. He engenders audience guilt like no other contemporary playwright I know.
The trouble here was it lacked that common touch. So much so that the political message at the heart of the play – and there often is – came across as preachy and facile rather than pointed and thought-provoking.
The cast – an excellent mix – worked their hardest, but in truth Bennett was not totally on his game here. If you like Alan Bennett plays then you’ll get something out of this. There are just about enough echoes of the Bennett oeuvre to keep the aficionado happy, or at least reasonably content. But if one of the above plays is being redone somewhere, take that in, instead.
Is he past him prime? Possibly. But if he could turn his mind to Brexit and the inner workings of a group of either remainers or leavers at the time of the referendum, I can’t think of a better playwright to extract a gem from such base materials.
Sadly, in all honesty, this is not a case where he has panned gold.
And Norwich? If you’ve not seen it before, here it is