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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

At the venerable age of 78, Alan Bennett is a “national treasure” and without doubt the most quintessentially English of playwrights. His plays, like no one else’s, capture the essence of England and its people in much the same way that Elgar’s music does. He has a delicious sense of humour, much of it scatological with an end-of-the-pier sensibility. He can also be bitingly satirical.

His much-anticipated new play People, which attempts to combine all his familiar trademarks and which has been generously welcomed by the national press, is, however, a profound disappointment.

The setting is a dank and dilapidated stately home in South Yorkshire owned by the equally dank and dilapidated Lady Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour), who, in her youth, was an aspiring model. She shares the crumbling pile with her companion-cum-half-sister Iris (Linda Bassett), a formidable old crone who could give Dickens’ Madam Defarge a run for her money, and is visited on occasion by her sister June (Selina Cadell), a lesbian archdeacon.

The issue at stake is how best to preserve Stacpoole House, its history and its heritage. There are several options, none of which Dorothy feels comfortable with. She could auction off its contents, including a collection of chamber pots used by such erstwhile notables as Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, Ramsay MacDonald and Thomas Hardy. She could put it into the hands of the National Trust. She could sell it to a dicey property consortium that can’t wait to get its hands on its contents and relocate the place, brick by brick, to Dorset or Wilshire. Or she could hire out the relic to a porn maker (Peter Egan) with whom she once had an affair.

What strikes one about this narrative is its palpable contrivance. Not only that, but the play carries so much thematic baggage it is difficult, in the end, to know what exactly the playwright is on about. For starters, the National Trust comes in for quite a drubbing. “It’s a pretend England,” says Dorothy, “so decent, so worthy, so dull.” Bennett abhors the sanitising effect it has on everything it touches and the way it makes over the past to suit its own image of the present.

The hazards of the contemporary heritage industry is another theme around which the play skirts. So is one’s invasion of privacy and how “people spoil things.” Perhaps what we’re watching is a two-act metaphor for contemporary England and its crumbling values. There’s also a swipe at our digitilised way of life.

Another issue under Bennett’s satirical microscope is our need to cubbyhole history and turn the past into an easily categorised, saleable commodity. And it’s most certainly an attack on Thatcherism when, as Dorothy remarks, “everything had a price. If it didn’t … it didn’t have value.” Now even chamber pots, with their original celebrity contents still preserved in them, are of interest to a prurient public.

While the play has some typically Bennettian one-liners that are very funny indeed, the sequence in which we watch a porn movie being shot in Stacpoole House (the central prop being a four-poster bed) is both implausible and embarrassing. It’s packed with cheap, easy, Carry On-type laughs and is there simply to titillate.

Most of the characters are sketchily drawn and inconsistent (the foul-smelling, moth-eaten bag-lady that is Lady Dorothy in the first act bares no resemblance to the spruced-up former model we see in act two), making it difficult to relate to them or their problems. The play’s more “serious” moments left me unmoved and uninvolved.

The skittish nature of the writing makes no serious demands on its protagonists. And as the three sisters, de la Tour, Bassett and Caddell – fine actresses that they are – are hardly stretched. The men, including Miles Jupp, Nicholas le Prevost and Egan – all playing characters with agendas of their own – are little more than self-serving caricatures.

An excellent set by Bob Crowley undergoes a spectacular transformation in the play’s closing moments. And it’s spiritedly directed by Nicholas Hytner, who does his best to impart to the piece a cohesion it simply does not posses.

All very dispiriting.


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