STAGE REVIEW: The Habit of Art - at the Festival Theatre, Malvern, from Tuesday, November 27 to Saturday, December 1, 2018.

THE church hall rehearsal room may have been cluttered and claustrophobic but Alan Bennett’s take on theatre life, along with death, and the plenty that lies in between, is both profound and entertaining as it finds plenty of room in which to breathe and explore.

Bennett’s work neatly restrains from entering too deep into the often glossy and unreal world of the arts, instead aiming right at the core of those in, and seeking to stay in the limelight, and their frailties and foibles.

It’s 1972 and a clearly superb cast - together with Philip Franks’ astute direction, splendidly takes us back in time to an imagined meeting between the poet WH Auden and the composer, Benjamin Britten.

What ensues won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Some of it will not be to their liking and they might be offended by certain areas of the subject matter. But Bennett’s turn of phrase more than compensates.

The two outstanding artists in their particular field have not met for three decades and while Britten is an unexpected visitor to Auden’s Oxford college room, there other interruptions to the proceedings from a couple of down-to-earth cleaners, a BBC interviewer and a rent boy!

Britten is in the throes of preparing an opera on the novella Death in Venice by Auden’s father-in-law, Thomas Mann, and hopes to gain Auden’s blessing and assistance.

Bennett’s drama - more aptly a play within a play - offers a revealing insight into a theatre company and their pre-performance concerns and worries. It’s witty at times and also perceptive as the nuts and bolts of rehearsals tighten the loose ends for the four actors who are involved in ‘the meeting’.

Unfortunately two other actors are at a matinee elsewhere which means the stage manager and her assistant stand in.

Also missing is the director - stuck up north, while the playwright arrives and is unaware of changes made to his work!

Anxious moments, some friction, plus plenty of fretting and fears of forgetting character traits and lines among this stunning fictional cast.

Matthew Kelly, once again at the top of his game as Fitz, the ageing and line-losing thespian playing Auden, conjures up the desired angst to match his craggy and lived in facial features, Offering exceptional support is David Yelland whose Henry delightfully delivers a Britten that was calmness on the outside but fearful within.

John Wark is Humphrey Carpenter, the actor determined to make more of an impact than his part allows. He’s the BBC Radio Oxford interviewer who subsequently became biographer to both men, and thus narrates the encounter.

This adds a spot of tidiness to the messy surrounds of the rehearsal venue in which stage manager Kay, Veronica Roberts, is the fulcrum around which all revolves.

Bennett has attempted to show how precarious life as an actor can be - especially when there are fears of loss of confidence, of forgetting lines and failing to be appreciated by audiences.

Thankfully it doesn’t make a habit of entering the realms of arty-farty showbiz, instead offering a degree of warmth and wistfulness.