The Habit of Art

Salisbury Playhouse

Until Saturday, September 22

A CLUTTERED rehearsal room is the atmospheric setting for the current superb revival of Alan Bennett's play within a play, The Habit of Art, in which fact and fiction merge intriguingly, enlivened by the dual roles of the leading actors.

This new touring production of The Habit of Art, directed by Philip Franks, is the first since the work's hugely successful premiere in 2009 at the National Theatre. Matthew Kelly is brilliant as the actor Fitz and the poet W H Auden and David Yelland plays actor Henry and the composer Benjamin Britten with restrained warmth.

The fictional meeting between Auden and Britten is the kernel of the play, depicting the ageing, iconic figures with great sensitivity. Friendship, rivalry and heartache are set alongside the joy, pain and emotional demands of creativity. There are also choice moments of high comedy.

The small cast of actors, rehearsing for a production of Caliban's Day, are controlled by their kindly, competent stage manager Kay, played by Veronica Roberts. John Wark, Benjamin Chandler, Alexandra Guelff and Robert Mountford complete the cast. The tale of the actors at rehearsal and the encounters of the two famous men interleave seamlessly, helped by an excellent design by Adrian Linford.

This new production is a collaboration between the Original Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal. The tour will continue to Oxford, Guildford, Ipswich, Richmond, Liverpool, Cambridge, Coventry, Salford, Southend-on-Sea and will conclude at Malvern at the end of November. Catch it if you can.

Stella Taylor