enjoy by alan bennett at west yorkshire playhouseBack
I started explaining to a friend that Enjoy, the play that opens West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Alan Bennett season, is about an old couple who live in one of the last back-to-back houses in Leeds. “Hang on,” she said. “There are loads of back-to-backs in Leeds. I live in one.”
Well, it’s a play – it’s not meant to be real. And just because it’s wrong doesn’t mean it’s not true. Leeds has always dragged its feet about its back-to-backs, carrying on building them for a decade after the government had effectively outlawed them, in typical Leeds knows better fashion, even as older ones were being pulled down in slum clearances. If Enjoy were set in the 1930s, Mam and Dad would have had less to worry about as they looked from their doorstep at the streets being demolished around them. Soon there would be nothing left – apart from the new ones.
As it is, Mam and Dad – Connie and Wilf – Marlene Sidaway and Philip Martin Brown, as convincingly and hermetically cantankerous with each other as if they spent rehearsals locked in box together – have a maisonette to look forward. “Light! Air!” says Dad. “Chrome plated handles on the bath. That’ll transform my life.” Dad is keen to follow in the footsteps of their daughter Linda – a jet-setting personal secretary – and embrace the modern world; their son, whose name can not be spoken, has already flown the nest to London. The only one who wants things to stay as they were is Mam, but her memory is becoming so bad she can’t remember how things were anyway – or how they are.
Nostalgia is at the heart of Enjoy, nostalgia for things that haven’t even gone yet, and that might not be worth remembering in the first place. Nostalgia and preservation. Before their house is demolished, Mam and Dad are to be observed behaving entirely naturally, by an entirely silent official “from the council,” there to record for inclusion in a museum “the virtues of self-reliance, neighbourliness and self-help” as demonstrated by a couple the audience have just watched bickering sourly for ten minutes, before answering a knock at their locked front door by yelling through it that, “We’re on the telephone and there’s an Alsation within earshot. So get lost.”
Bennett reckoned in 1990 that events in the ten years since he had written Enjoy had borne out its premise of a back-to-back being rebuilt in a museum, brick by brick and occupant by occupant, citing reports of a Victorian school that was to be restored in a Bradford museum. Nearly another quarter-century later, the idea of this historical preservation project starts to feel like one of those nostalgic ‘Do You Remember…?’ TV shows, in which minor celebrities no older than you reminisce about things that nobody has forgotten yet, and Zoe Ball asks if you remember Blue Peter, and you check the listings and see it’s on tomorrow.
The technical exuberance of James Brining’s production at West Yorkshire Playhouse takes Enjoy’s central idea further than the museum and into those realms of reality TV, as it becomes clear that every house in the street has its own observer, and neighbours trail in and out followed by their own observers, cameramen and sound recordists with boom mikes. Live video from within Mam and Dad’s front room is fed from the cameras on stage to enormous screens above, adding another layer of unreality between us and the characters ‘acting naturally,’ and deserving of serious tech props when a Rolls Royce gets involved, along with praise for the actors who are performing for both wide-angle theatre and close-up TV at the same time.
Adding the recording equipment to the silent observers’ arsenal – Mam and Dad’s observer is called Ms. Craig – amplifies the absurdity of Big Brother and the like ever being able to capture the essence of unobserved life by watching it. Ms. Craig is to be ignored, but after she takes up a chair in the living room every second sentence is addressed her way. That she’s sent by the council responsible for rehoming them – “We must have been selected; they’ve picked us out down at the Town Hall” – adds a dark authoritarian touch. Behave naturally and ignore the observer, else the council’ll forget to tell anybody where you’ve gone.
Enjoy predates Bennett’s Talking Heads, but you can see its style in Dad’s self-justifying monologues delivered to the unresponsive Ms. Craig and her camera; Talking Heads removed the observer, leaving the audience alone with the character, but observation still had to take place for the character to be translated from life to the stage.
Alan Bennett has denied that Ms. Craig should be read as some sort of stand-in for himself, or any other writer, alone in the room with Mam and Dad, who suspect their every self-conscious word is being recorded by the observer in the corner for use in a play about northerners as they really are. But the idea of a writer building success on his roots and then facing the music at home has bothered Bennett’s Yorkshire writer contemporaries like Blake Morrison and Tony Harrison, and this production, with its emphasis on television, and the council’s project director Harman planning his museum as if it were a big budget West End show, invites us to put Bennett’s role as recordist of Leeds lives at the centre of things, whether he likes it or not. And Enjoy is the opening play in an Alan Bennett season, after all, so we can afford to involve him.
Ms. Craig is no stranger to these parts or these people, and the question that haunts Ms. Craig – as it has haunted Morrison, Harrison, and maybe Bennett – is whether this preservation project has sold out her roots. Mam and Dad as they really are represent everything Ms. Craig escaped from to London, “My sights set on New York”; but to get to New York she must return with a camera crew and a producer and put Mam and Dad on permanent display in a show.
By the end the house (and, starkly, the set) is demolished, Mam is in a museum, Dad in hospital, and Ms. Craig is in a farmhouse on the edge of the moors, only forty minutes from Leeds but far enough away. “I look down on everything. Leeds… it’s just a glow in the sky.”
It’s hard not to hear a ring of guilt in that ‘Looking down on Leeds’, a city that, in the world of plays, sent its back-to-backs for rubble decades ago, its history reduced to a glow as it burns; but a city where, outside the theatre, the back-to-backs are all still here. You can imagine the surprise of Enjoy’s West End audience stepping off the train in Leeds – “But Alan Bennett said these were all knocked down!”
That’s the escape route for a lot of people who see their horizons beyond Leeds, or any hometown they’d like to escape – to tell people that it’s all changed now, and avoid going back to places that haven’t really changed at all, where it might become obvious that what has changed is you. Changed externally, at least, which is much the same with Leeds; however progressive the place wants to feel, still longing for Lumiere, we’d miss those back-to-backs if they were gone.
Of all the changes in all the characters in the play, and there are plenty of switches, from woman to man, from dead to alive, Dad is the one most ready to change, to progress, and the one least able. He finally gets his way out of his back-to-back, but rather than a maisonette he gets a hospital bed by a window: “They showed this view to Princess Alexandra when she came round and she said, ‘This view is as good as any medicine.’ You can see the whole of Leeds.” It hasn’t occurred to the princess viewing from that distance that Leeds might be the reason Dad is ill in the first place.
Or rather, the stress of trying to remember what Leeds was like made him ill, when he’d rather what Leeds was like – and what he was like – be forgotten, while everyone around him seems determined to keep the past alive. It’s hard to share in the nostalgia for what things used to be like when things haven’t really changed, and you never really liked them that way anyway. Can you enjoy memories of the old back-to-backs the way you’re told you should, while you’re still living in one?
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