Enjoy, one of Alan Bennett’s earlier plays, wasn’t well-received when it was first staged in 1980 with Joan Plowright; audiences and critics felt it was too long and, Bennett says, missed the point. Luckily it has now been revived and revised, in a new shorter version with Alison Steadman which is currently touring, and The Guardian gave this five well-deserved stars. The play is set in a back-to-back in Leeds in the 1970s, with the inhabitants, Wilfred and Connie Craven, facing a move to a maisonette since the street is to be demolished to make way for the modern world. Their lives, recorded by sociologists who sit disarmingly silent but somehow filling the room, are trivial, yet made up of the stuff of every-day life: families, anxieties, inconsequential chit-chat. Enjoy puts the lives of the Cravens on display, with Bennett-style humour that had the audience at the Birmingham Rep in stitches. Alison Steadman is excellent as Connie Craven, with her comic timing impeccable as ever.
There’s a lot more to it than that, though. Enjoy is funny, but it’s not without its serious side. In looking at how a way of life was being lost, and our rather false attempts to preserve these things as “heritage”, Bennett taps into a rich, and darker, train of thought. The community values of the back-to-backs led to “happiness”, and one wonders if these values, too – sharing, unselfishness, comradeship – are being put in a museum as relics of a different age when the world was a different place. Still, one of the ironies of the play is that the Cravens aren’t happy, not really – their children are either absent or uncaring; they don’t seem to like each other that much, and they disagree on virtaully everything. And that is another dark side to this play: how a marriage, after decades of tolerance, can become bitter and resentful; how relationships, with spouses and children, can sour. Bennett makes this funny, but some of it is startling.
To me, it seemed that another pertinent aspect of this play was its treatment of age: as forgetful, self-deluding, backward-looking, but also as optimistic, attempting to make the best of things and take the world as it comes. This aspect in particular leads to some comic moments where the laughter is definitely uneasy; Bennett meant this play to be slightly unsettling, and so it is – but if it were purely for laughs, I think one would leave feeling unsatisfied; as it is, Bennett lives up to his own belief that a play should be enjoyable (hence the cryptic title, apparently) as well as pointing to deeper meanings.