Alan Bennett is one of our most celebrated playwrights, with dozens of stage, TV and radio plays to his name as well as several major film adaptations, including The History Boys, The Lady in The Van and The Madness of King George.
His distinctive voice and style has given us a wealth of sharply written characters since he began his writing career back in 1960.
Now Portsmouth’s own professional company, New Apollo Theatre are putting on two of his works in one evening – A Chip in The Sugar and An Englishman Abroad.
A Chip in The Sugar is part of his series of Talking Heads monologues – and Bennett played the part himself in the original BBC One version in a Bafta-nominated turn. Aaron Holdaway will be taking on the part in this production.
Director Steve Pitt says: I love Bennett. He's my favourite playwright. He creates perfect characters. We were discussing in rehearsal that getting inside his characters takes a while but once you find their rhythm, they are so perfectly framed that everything just clicks. It's like solving a puzzle.
‘Bennett writes his monologues as people actually speak. There are no unnecessary words, no pointless embellishment, just beautifully simple yet powerful language. He also has incredible skill with comedy.
‘There are always some obviously funny lines but equally, he writes like all great comedy writers in that he leaves the director and the actor to find the best way to manipulate the pauses between the lines to bring out so much more to amuse and entertain the audience.
‘This is particularly true of A Chip In The Sugar. Bennett wrote it to perform himself, so when any other actor performs it, there is a need to tease out all the character voices, give them all an identity and discover how each of them can be both serious and comedic in their own way.
‘It's so rewarding working on this with an actor and seeing them gradually find the rhythm and become the different roles within the piece. Every actor I've worked with on a Bennett monologue ends up in love with it and never forgets the experience.’
An Englishman Abroad is a very different beast – based on the true story of a meeting between actress Coral Browne and the spy Guy Burgess after he defected to Russia, in late 1950s Moscow. Becky James and Henry Oastler play the leads.
‘The two have an interesting interaction,’ explains Steve. ‘It's not warm but it is mutually curious. Browne wants to understand the motivation of the spy and Burgess wants news from home.
‘Bennett still discovers comedy in the meeting. Lunch consists of tomatoes and garlic and there is a rendition of a Gilbert and Sullivan song which will surprise and amuse.’
For Steve, the chance to direct provides a break from his role in Portsmouth City Council as cabinet member for culture, leisure and sport.
‘It's such a tough challenge fitting rehearsals in between the day job demands these days but I still love it as much as I did when I first directed a play 33 years ago.
‘I love music and working with musicians but I'm not creating anything, just helping them and managing the process. In theatre, you can break the rules, do a new take on an established piece and feel you've left a mark on an author's work, not just to please an audience but yourself too. It's an amazing feeling when an audience laughs where you want them to and is shocked or moved by something. It means you have done the actors and the author justice and that's ultimately your job.’
‘We're very lucky that in New Apollo we have some fantastic actors. Some full time pros and some part-time but all wonderful.
‘Being able to work with Chris Marlowe for nearly 20 years has been a privilege. We must have worked on over 30 shows together since he played Frank in our production of Educating Rita in 1999.
‘Henry Oastler and I have known each other for even longer and have also worked together many times, including on what was almost a debut of Bernard Kops' Ezra. Henry gave a tour de force performance in that production.
‘Although I haven't known him anywhere near as long this will be my third play with Aaron Holdaway. He's a real talent and was rightly recognised for his role as director of Southsea Shakespeare Actors' The Tempest in the Guide Awards.
‘He's got a great instinct for comedy and has risen to the challenge of taking on Bennett's own monologue brilliantly.
‘Becky James and I both directed plays for a double-header at the Wedgewood Rooms a while back and it's great to be able to work with her again. She's played Coral Browne before and also directed the play in 2017, so it's interesting to hear what her thoughts are on the piece. Hopefully I'm getting it right!’
AN EVENING OF ALAN BENNETT
The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth