Friday 16 November 2012

Theatre review: People

Inevitably one of the biggest theatrical events of the year was always going to be the premiere of the new Alan Bennett play, the latest in his long-standing collaboration with the National Theatre's Artistic Director, Nicholas Hytner. People also reunites Bennett with Frances de la Tour, who had memorable supporting roles in both The History Boys and The Habit of Art, and here gets her turn centre stage. The setting is a crumbling country pile somewhere in South Yorkshire. The house and most of its contents are, in theory, priceless, but death duties have left little money to actually take care of the place, and it's now an unheated mausoleum, occupied by two batty old ladies: Dorothy (de la Tour,) the owner, who lives a virtual hermit's life and only keeps up with "current" events via a pile of newspapers from 1982; and her even battier friend Iris (Linda Bassett,) who sits in a world of her own knitting scarves for the troops (Dorothy's informed her there's a war on in the Falklands.)

People is concerned with what to do with the big old house, and is largely Bennett's satire of the National Trust. Dorothy's sister June (Selina Cadell,) a Church of England archdeacon, is insistent that the house be given to the Trust to take care of. Dorothy thinks June only wants it to become public property because she didn't inherit it herself, and is looking at other options: Bevan (Miles Jupp) is an auctioneer evaluating the contents of the home, which could fetch enough to keep it running. But he also represents a shadowy "Concern" that are interested in buying the house and moving it brick by brick to the South of England for mysterious reasons of their own. The audience was clearly there for Bennett's famous flashes of biting wit, and lapped them up when they came, but actually this is a show pretty low on the one-liners. Not a problem in itself, but I found the pace of the whole first act to be rather slow. With the exception of the miscast Jupp, who brings no real spark to the snake-oil salesman, I didn't find the cast to be the problem; rather that by the time the curtain comes down for the interval I felt we'd spent the entire first hour having the scene set for us.

Things improve in the second act not only because stuff actually starts to happen, but also because Bennett indulges a bit more in his more surreal side as a third source of income turns up. Possibly inspired by a story a couple of years ago where a popular filming location for period dramas and party political broadcasts turned out to also play host to porn films, a chance encounter with old flame Mr Theodore (Peter Egan, from the 1980s,) sees Dorothy letting him use one of the many four-poster beds to shoot his latest film, "Reach for the Thighs." Having dreaded the idea of people (the title gets a lot of use) filling their home, Dorothy and Iris are given a new lease of life by the crew who fix the heating, pamper them, and give them a partially-clothed porn star to look at (Robin Pearce is geekily cute but perhaps not everyone's first mental image of what a porn star looks like - I would imagine Alexander Warner to have been the more obvious choice of person to have wandering around the stage in a jockstrap, but fair play, Pearce does have a nice arse. And his face fits something that seems to me to sum up Alan Bennett more than anything else: Who else would create a porn star called Colin?)

With various objects being used to comically obscure Pearce's and his co-star's (Jess Murphy) genitals, not to mention the unfortunately-timed arrival of a Bishop (Andy de la Tour,) Bennett is self-consciously playing with the standard tropes of farce in these entertaining segments. Another reason I liked the second act better may be because I could see the scene-stealing Bassett better (in the first half she mainly stayed in the one chair, obscured by the head of the person in front of me.) Her facial expressions are a highlight, not least of all when presented with Colin's professional talents. But overall People is a bit of a curate's egg, and a strange mix of various different styles from Bennett's past career. By the end I was reminded of Enjoy, the early flop (more successfully revived a couple of years ago) where he seemed to preempt reality TV by a couple of decades with the story of a working class family put on public display; this time the surroundings are a bit grander, and it's history that's being Disneyfied and given a price tag.

People by Alan Bennett is booking in repertory until the 2nd of April at the National Theatre's Lyttelton (returns and day seats only for performances up to the 9th of February.)

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.


  1. Curious. It's a 'big' production and the NT have thrown money at it but as with so much Nicholas Hytner it encourages self-indulgent over-acting and both Frankie de la Tour and Nick le Prevost are too unrestrained, plus rather like Julie Walters in Haussmans FdlT has one stagey 'voice' she over-uses.

    It's perfectly legitimate to use the National Trust as a target for your disapproval, but I felt Bennett wasn't as subtle as I've known him and if he's trying to deride it as a microcosm of British society, he doesn't really pull it off, and the speech patterns weren't as authentically Yorkshire as much of his early writing.

    I know Ms de la Tour and Bennett are close ever since she created Mrs Lintott for History Boys, but I thought she was quite the wrong actress for this role. It's very hard for actors to 'do posh' if they're not naturally - even Dame Maggie lets her Ilford origins slip out occasionally - and there's no way someone as lugubrious as FdlT could ever have been a Hartnell or Schiaparelli model and it's ludicrous to suggest she could now fit in to clothes made for her in the 60's. Was Joanna Lumley not available?

    Plus the burlesque of the cast refurbishing the house is a foolish and expensive nonsense you can see coming from the first scene, the whole sub-plot of the porn movie being nearly-witnessed by a bishop with dodgy bi-focals is a plot even Brian Rix would have rejected as facile, and the staging of the porn movie is stolen (by Bennett) from Louis Theroux's 1997 'Wierd Weekends' documentary.

    Apart from that, I loved it.

    1. It's definitely an odd one. I didn't have a problem with France de la Tour's performance, I thought she was about the right shade of magisterially eccentric, like I say the only performance I thought was completely wrong was Jupp's. He seems to have been cast for poshness alone, I certainly didn't see any of the "Mephistophelean" quality one of the official reviews claims he has. Le Provost barely registered with me, I see I didn't even get round to mentioning him in my review.

      The short-sighted Bishop was one of those awkward situations where something is very obviously a parody of a cliché, but doesn't quite work and comes off like the cliché itself. I think it just didn't make sense in context of the rest of the play; ditto the interpretative dance home repairs, but then you could say that about almost everything about People: Every style Bennett's ever used seemed to crop up at some point and compete for attention. As I said to Jan afterwards, even the play ending with Dorothy quoting poetry to the audience felt like a leftover quote that he hadn't got round to using in The History Boys.