Ben & Imo

Ben & Imo
Reviewer's Rating

At one level, the playwright Mark Ravenhill has created a theatrical equivalent of the film Biopic. One of the pleasures of his play, Ben & Imo, which is focused entirely on Benjamin Britten’s working with Imogen Holst to create of the opera Gloriana in 1953, is eavesdropping on these characters as they work, develop a strong relationship, shout at each other, hurt each other, make each other laugh, become playful at times and project their fears, phobias and paranoia onto each other. The characters do not so much develop as reveal themselves under various pressures. Ravenhill has understood them in all their talent, frailty and humanity. Erica Whyman’s excellent direction is completely supported by the strong performances of Victoria Yeates as an enchanting Imogen Holst and Samuel Barnett as the facinating Benjamin Britten. I felt that the two actors simply embodied their characters. At no point did I feel that this was mere impersonation – Barnett and Yeates were those people up on the stage. And both were by turns engaging, captivating, infuriating and frustrating and at every moment very human.

I was fascinated from the entrance of Imo with her three suitcases and her explanation of the kind of life she wanted to live and had been living living. I was immediately struck by Ben Britten’s description of how he charms people, draws them in and then rejects them, a summary of the arc of the story. I liked the fact that Ravenhill’s play doesn’t over-emphasise things we know about Britten in our day that would have been kept from public knowledge in those days for fear of scandal: his marital relationship with Peter Pears, his attraction to pubescent boys, for example. He even fudges some of those aspects of his life when talking to Imo, though she must have known.

The play is a two hander, but because there are so many references to the people who inhabited the artistic world of Ben and Imo and discussions between them of the pressures and politics of the art world they were working in, somehow a sense of the wider world and the context of their lives is strongly felt throughout. I also liked very much the musical elements of the story telling, with a piano dominating the stage, apt music composed by Conor Mitchell and the ability of both Samuel Barnett and Victoria Yeates to convey with their own musical and dancing talents the dominance of music in their lives.

The play works for me on several levels. At the highest level is the fascinating portrayal of a growing friendship and even love between two people. This is a play about relationship, how we support those we care about and how we use them and project our worst selves onto them at times. Another important level is the fascination of getting to know Ben and Imo as individuals in so many ways that must have made the real people attractive and difficult. The script is strong in its casual doling out of knowledge about the post-war world Ben and Imo lived and worked in at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II, a sense of its political games, its strictures, its repressions, even of its economics and politics.

On top of the piano there sits a model of Britten’s house in Aldeburgh that reminded me of the model house in Albee’s Tiny Alice. I liked the evocative set and costume design of Soutra Gilmour. The play examines how a work of art is created, the pressures on the artist, the need for support and collaboration to bring a new work to life. For me this was a richly nuanced and thought-provoking theatrical experience. I felt informed, educated and definitely entertained non-stop. I also know that the audience and the young ushers at the theatre felt the same, because I overheard conversations and talked to a few of them. The applause at the end – including my own — was sincerely enthusiastic.

Writer Mark Ravenhill

Director Erica Whyman

Producer Royal Shakespeare Company

Set and Costume Design  Soutra Gilmour

Composer Conor Mitchell

Cast: Samuel Barnett and Victoria Yeates

Venue: The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon

Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes with interval

Playing in Stratford until 6 April 2024