David Troughton tells Caroline Bishop why he is up for the challenge of reviving Alan Bennett’s famous failure, Enjoy, in the West End.
When, in July 2000, our national obsession with observing other people’s toilet habits and flawed social skills officially began with the first UK series of Big Brother, Alan Bennett would have been forgiven for having a smug expression upon his face. Because 20 years before, Bennett had written Enjoy, a play in which an aging couple are observed in their home by a sociologist. It premiered at the Vaudeville theatre in 1980 and promptly flopped.
Christopher Luscombe’s revival, however, has flown in the face of that earlier failure. It comes to the West End’s Gielgud theatre following a critically acclaimed run at Theatre Royal Bath last year, where it had audiences in hysterics, according to Guardian critic Michael Billington, who described it as a “rich and wondrous play…about the way we assume a false identity when under observation”. For those who have just watched the annual fake-fest that is Celebrity Big Brother, Bennett’s play suddenly seems entirely topical.
“He’s [Bennett] very proud of it – he says it’s so prophetic,” says David Troughton, who plays Wilfred, one half of the couple under scrutiny, in Luscombe’s production. “It’s very of the moment, because in 1980 when it was first done, people didn’t really understand what’s going on, but now, what with Big Brother and CCTV and pop documentaries about people, you know, cameras are everywhere and it sort of represents all that sort of thing.”
The setting for Bennett’s drama is a working class area of Leeds – the playwright’s hometown – where the curmudgeonly Wilf, disabled and housebound after an accident 10 years previously, lives with his long-suffering wife Connie (Alison Steadman) in one of the city’s last back-to-back houses. Mam and Dad, as they also call themselves, will be rehoused when their dingy home is demolished to make way for flats. “The council, in their wisdom, think it would be a good idea to send in teams of sociologists to observe how we live, so when the new flats are built they can maybe understand what they need better,” Troughton tells me, when we speak on the phone during rehearsals for the London run.
The situation becomes increasingly surreal as the couple’s daughter makes an appearance, their disowned son arrives home rather ambiguously, and their condemned house ends up as a museum piece, complete with living relics. “It’s a bittersweet comedy, because it’s very, very funny and sad at the same time,” assesses Troughton.
“He’s very proud of it – he says it’s so prophetic”
The play was a departure for the author of Forty Years On and The Old Country, something identified by Bennett at the time as contributing to its failure. “I think it was disliked because people want you to write the play that you’ve just written,” he said to The Guardian in 1984. “They didn’t like a play which began seemingly as a naturalistic play, then turned into a much more… realistic one with naturalism thrown out the window.”
Troughton agrees: “I think basically they didn’t want Alan Bennett to write this sort of stuff. It’s a play with so many styles in it, [it’s] so clever the way it will take you along one storyline in a certain style and then chop your feet from under you and say no, now we’re going here. And I think it was a bit too avant-garde, a bit too theatrical for 1980s audiences.”
1980’s loss is 2009’s gain as Enjoy is revived in the West End in the wake of Bennett’s most recent new play, The History Boys, which took London and Broadway by storm, discovering a near-insatiable audience demand and guzzling awards on both sides of the Atlantic.
While that may mean audiences – economic gloom notwithstanding – flock to this revival in higher numbers than to its premiere 29 years ago, it is doubtful that Bennett will be among them; he never sees his old plays, Troughton tells me, for fear he would want to rewrite them.
What’s more, he has allowed director Luscombe the freedom to interpret the play as he sees fit, which meant lopping 45 minutes off the running time in the process. “There are some writers who are very protective, but Alan Bennett, he gives you his play to do with what you want, which is a gift from him, rather than saying no you’re not going to change one word and all that,” says Troughton.
All in all, it has been a positive first experience of a Bennett play for 58-year-old Troughton, an actor who is best known for his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where his many roles have ranged from Caliban in The Tempest and Bolingbroke in Richard II to Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “With Shakespeare you’re really doing poetic plays. Language is the thing; language and story and use of words and creating images in other people’s minds,” Troughton reflects. “I suppose contemporary plays are more about character and story and subject. There again you can get poetic writers such as Alan Bennett; I mean he’s a poetic writer because he’s got rhythms and he knows how people talk and it’s just as poetic sometimes, just not in iambic pentameter.”
“It’s only pretend, isn’t it, acting? It’s not earth-shattering”
Troughton is well-placed to compare Shakespeare with other playwrights. His estimated eight seasons at the RSC have been “on and off, because after two years I’m absolutely knackered”, so the off periods have been occupied with wide-ranging credits encompassing Joe Orton, Thornton Wilder, David Edgar and Anton Chekhov. He is also a regular on television, which is where he gained an early break in A Very Peculiar Practice, in 1986.
Though his career takes him round the country – Enjoy has already toured the UK after its season in Bath – Troughton always comes back to Stratford-Upon-Avon, not just because it is the home of the RSC but because it is his hometown, too. He and his wife, actor and director Alison Troughton, fell in love with Shakespeare’s birthplace when he first worked there, and the couple and their three sons have lived in Stratford ever since.
“At the end of each year at the RSC, you used to go for a little talk with your leader, [former RSC Artistic Director] Terry Hands,” he recalls. “And he said where ‘do you live now David?’ I said ‘Stratford’, he said ‘oh that’s dangerous, you’ll never work here again’. So I disproved that theory!”
The town has become integral to the family’s life in more ways than one: Alison now runs The Drama Pool, a company offering Shakespeare-based acting workshops; eldest son Sam has followed his father into acting and has just been cast in the RSC’s long ensemble for the next two years; while Jim, the middle of his three sons, has been influenced by his father’s other well-known passion – cricket – and plays for Warwickshire after honing his skills at Stratford Cricket Club. “Cricketers and actors…not going to keep us in our old age, are they?” Troughton jokes, in the jolly, light-hearted tone that pervades our conversation.
But he can’t blame them for following in his footsteps, as he himself followed his actor father, Patrick Troughton – the second Doctor Who, no less – into the profession. “I think it’s in the genes, somewhere,” he comments, “because that I should decide to become an actor is a pretty hideous decision really isn’t it? It’s a weird way of existing.”
Of course, if he could, he would have been a professional cricketer. “Ohhh love to have been,” he says with emphasis. “I was not that good, not good enough.”
But acting isn’t a bad choice for a sports lover, as both involve “being in front of people and making a fool of yourself, sometimes,” he chuckles, before adding: “It’s the same sort of performance ethic. I think sport is much more difficult because it’s all ad-lib. You can practise but then you’ve got no lines, you are thrown your lines by the [ball] coming down at 90 miles an hour. At least we can rehearse.”
That is not to say that he doesn’t find his profession a challenge, on the contrary, the challenge is in making sure he always takes roles that really push his buttons. “I’d never want to be in a safe environment really, you’ve got to be able to say, ‘I’ve not done that before and I’m going to try it’; if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out. It’s only pretend, isn’t it, acting? It’s not earth-shattering; it’s not going to kill anyone, hopefully,” he says, echoing the approach of his father, who reportedly described theatre as “all that shouting in the evening”.
It is this committed, yet none-too-serious attitude that seems to have stood Troughton in good stead and enabled him to find a balance in life. He has defied Terry Hands’s prophesy to continue working for the RSC, interspersing Shakespeare with varied work on stage and television, all the while making sure he doesn’t accept jobs in the summer so he is free to watch cricket and umpire for the Birmingham League Premier Division.
“The ultimate challenge is to keep working,” he adds sensibly. “Sometimes you’re offered things that you don’t want to do, but because you’re professional you have to do them, because you have to earn money. That is a challenge. It’s much easier doing something really good, like this, than doing something terrible.”
In that case, his last foray to the Gielgud theatre must have been a challenge indeed. He first appeared at the Globe theatre, as it was then called, more than 30 years ago in a play called Parents Day, which was “probably the worst play ever written”. Thankfully the cloud had a silver lining as it was that production which introduced him to Alison, his future wife, who was also in the cast. Parents Day only survived a paltry 10 days in the West End, shorter than the ill-fated premiere production of Enjoy, which managed seven weeks. Perhaps the fact that Troughton is returning to the Gielgud with another Alison – co-star Steadman – is a good omen for this revival of a play that, in 2009, is hoping to be enjoyed a little longer.