fri 25/07/2014

People, National Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

People, National Theatre

Alan Bennett gives the National Trust (and all of us) a bloody nose in his new comedy

In need of a hot bath: Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett in Alan Bennett's 'People'Images © Catherine Ashmore/NT

The word “people” of the title of Alan Bennett’s new play is to be spat out, like a lemon pip. People, who invade your space, boss your values, make you be what they want. So does the beleaguered Lady Dorothy Stacpoole feel about the stark options facing her as her fantastically grand mansion leaks and crumbles over her smelly, freezing feet, while under it groans ancient mine workings like a whale with toothache. The options are to auction off the contents and house to who-knows-who, to sell via a slimy salesman to “The Concern” (a bunch of invisible super-rich who buy top works of art and estates in order to hide them away from public gaze), to pass on to the National Trust and live on in the house like a relic to entertain the visitors, or to scrap the odd bit of dosh from passing porno film-shoots.

And which would you choose? Bennett’s play feels less like a class comedy than an old man’s rage against the sterility of today’s cautious, over-organised society, where all boxes must be computer-ticked, and all human spirit and oddity processed away. Upending his cuddly reputation, he gives the poor old National Trust a really bloody nose, and there’s been a bit of protest about that in the NT-reading prints such as the Telegraph. Why? Because they are most guilty (says Bennett) of cleaning, sterilising, processing the mucky reality out of houses of centuries of history, putting upgraded mortar-work and deodorised clichés before the capricious and malodorous idiosyncrasy of the humans who actually lived their imperfect lives in the houses.

bassett, de la tourPeople like septuagenarian Lady Dotty, whom we meet among chilly cobwebs, wrapped in moth-eaten mink and acrylic knits, an aristocratic former model now as shabby as Bennett's Lady in the Van. She may catch the leaks from her vast roof in medieval Chinese pots worth fortunes, but they’re leaks nevertheless, and she hasn't a clue how to find the money to plug them and stop being damp, miserable and cold. She's reading 30-year-old newspapers and would only switch on the "wireless" if there were a war.

Bennett, with his usual acuity for classic double acts (see Auden and Britten in his last NT premiere, The Habit of Art), sets her up with a “companion”, the lower-drawer, Northern-tongued Iris, even older and shabbier than Dotty is, and far more her sort than the crisp, righteous sister June, who is a lesbian Archdeacon and National Trust member.

Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett (pictured above right) are a delight as the two crones, playing snooty and mousey just like Robert Helpmann and Frederick Ashton's Ugly Sisters in Ashton’s ballet Cinderella. De la Tour, lofty in manner, and “Lofty” by nickname (yes!!!), has less richness in her script than the indiscreet, timorous Bassett, whose Iris pretty much steals the entire show; but as a duo they’re a treat, dancing to Petula Clark singing “Down Town” and walking tightropes of indiscretion and old-lady innuendo in their conversations.

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