I probably would have gone to see The Habit of Art anyway. A new Alan Bennett play - are you kidding? But what really sealed it was the subject matter. The publicity - even Alan Bennett himself - suggests it's an exploration of the relationship between Auden and Benjamin Britten, a relationship which led directly to some of Britten's greatest music. Britten was just 29 when he set Auden's words for Hymn to St. Cecilia, their final collaboration. Although both men lived another thirty-odd years, they fell out and never even met again.
What was behind their rift, and what might have happened if they'd encountered each other later in life? An imaginary meeting in 1972 is at the centre of Bennett's play. But as the Guardian's naughtily early it's-not-a-review-it's-a-feature revealed after the first preview, The Habit of Art is really about Bennett himself. In dialogue with himself, in fact. Auden expresses Bennett's anxieties about ageing and his ambivalence towards his 'national treasure' image. Britten is Bennett's need for support and validation of his work, the still-fresh wound of his youthful feelings of inadequacy. Bennett's words and Alex Jennings's characterisation don't add up to any picture of Britten that you might immediately recognise from writings or broadcasts - nor are they intended to. As portraits go, the characters are as imaginary as the formally inventive play-within-a-play situation they're placed in.
In short, while the play has much to recommend it that I won't go into here because this is a music blog, no light is shed on Britten. There's also very little music. What there is gets played in deliberately rehearsal-style fashion on electric piano. There are reasons why it's worth seeing The Habit of Art - but music isn't one of them, so don't queue hours for tickets on that basis.
The prickly Britten was legendarily offended (and I can't say I blame him) by this Dudley Moore skit from Beyond the Fringe, a TV show that also featured the young Alan Bennett. Nearly 50 years old!