Theater News Online
free issue
London Theatre Reviews
NY Theater Reviews
LTN Recommendations
NYTN Recommendations
Book Reviews
Movie Reviews
London Theatre Archives
NY Theater Archives
Latest New York News
Latest London News
NY News Archives
London News Archives
Peter Filichia's Monday Quiz
Dining and Travel
London Theatre Listings
NY Broadway Listings
Off-Broadway Listings
London Tickets
Advertise with us

Give a Gift


Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Linda Bassett, Jack Chissick and Alastair Parker/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

The late Walter Kerr once famously wrote of Neil Simon’s 1966 Broadway entry The Star-Spangled Girl that the prolific American playwright “hasn't had an idea for a play this season, but he's gone ahead and written one anyway.” That phrase buzzed around me during and after the severely disappointing Alan Bennett play People, of which it could fairly be said that the rightly admired 78-year-old Englishman has plenty of ideas but hasn’t bothered to attach them to a play.
The result is certainly the strangest Bennett play in my experience, especially coming after the remarkable late-career rumination that was The Habit of Art, an intensely personal work in which Bennett seemed to be summoning a lifetime’s affection for the theater in general and for the playhouse that is the National in particular. So here he is back in the Lyttelton auditorium with a new play starring the Tony-winner who got to speak the phrase that gives The Habit of Art its title – namely Frances de la Tour, in her third consecutive Bennett show. (Her Tony came, of course, for The History Boys.)
And you know what? Even de la Tour, gamely commanding that she is (and the trouper certainly kicks up her heels at the curtain call), seems strangely adrift in a play that summons up the likes of Grey Gardens, Lettice and Lovage and even, if you please, No Sex Please, We’re British at various times, only to be interrupted by the occasional Bennett broadside with which, on this occasion, it isn’t easy to agree.
The brunt of Bennett’s opprobrium is reserved for the National Trust, the heritage-minded British institution that the dramatist clearly reviles due to the disregard with which it packages history and biography for ready consumption. (Hello: didn’t Bennett do much the same in dramatic terms by co-opting the lives of the Hanoverian King George as well as W H Auden and Benjamin Britten for two successful plays?)
But I digress. The setting is an elegant Yorkshire home that has fallen into disrepair, its occupants content to curl up by the fire swathed in layers of clothing and blankets while chamber pots of urine (or, as the British so quaintly prefer to call it, “wee”), sit elsewhere, stinking up the place but adding to the value of the property due to the famous urinators represented – Kipling and Shaw among them. (“Urinators?” Now there’s a first, though, interestingly, Lucy Prebble’s brilliant new play The Effect also makes much of urine in its opening passages. … Something must be in the, um, air?)
Lady Stacpoole (de la Tour) and her hunched companion Iris (Linda Bassett, playing a sight gag role that could have come out of The Addams Family) break out every so often into song – and so what if neither venerable actress can really sing? And Lady S. in particular makes much out of wishing, Greta Garbo-style, to be left alone, which both gives the play its title and also makes one wonder why it is that her disfavor toward the human race goes instantly to the wall the minute a porn movie takes over the property so as to bring in some much-needed cash. Then again, if you buy the contrivance that these people would allow that activity at that address, especially with a lesbian archdeacon added to the mix (Selina Cadell plays that part, and not very well), then you need far more convincing than Bennett himself manages in the published preface to the printed text that in many ways is more interesting than the play itself. 
Bennett sweetens the dramatic deal by turning the porn movie director (Peter Egan) into an old flame of de la Tour’s faded aristocrat, Dorothy, but that seems about as plausible as a later revelation involving the real identity of Iris that plays like a last-minute stab at enriching a decidedly undernourished part.
Logic doesn’t figure much in a play that contains characteristically Bennettian forays into sketch work and revue, which can be enchanting in the right context. (Who can forget the musical interludes in The History Boys?) But Bennett’s complaints here seem strangely cranky, as does his wish that Britain, and the British, could somehow just be left to get on with things. Sure, stately homes are ripe for satire, as Maggie Smith reminded us to gleeful Tony-winning effect when she played the eponymous Lettice Douffet in Lettice and Lovage (and Dame Maggie would have made a formidable Dorothy here). But is it really wrong in principle to illuminate an eager public now about the way people lived then? I don’t subscribe to that any more than I get a gratuitous second-act reference to the Holocaust, the commodification of genocide a hideous thing, to be sure, but the reality of contemporary visits to the camps is about infinitely more than that – as Bennett surely knows.
The play’s one unassailable strength is Bob Crowley’s set, which moves from a Grey Gardens-like state of advanced ruination through to a restored splendor by way of a scenic transfiguration that put me in mind of the canvas-priming scene in John Logan’s splendid play Red. Is it meant to be a triumph or a sign of defeat that by play’s end the newly techno-happy, visually resplendent Dorothy is smilingly showing strangers – note: people! – through her once-crumbling abode? On that front, as so many others, People seems unable to make up its mind. Well, this person did: the play needs work.


SUBSCRIBE TO New York Theater News
SUBSCRIBE TO London Theater News

Yes, Prime Minister contracts its run, while A Chorus Line expands its own.
POWERHOUSE OF THEATRE - After 11 years as the Almeida Theatre's artistic director, Michael Attenborough is stepping down to focus on directing. 

SONGS FROM THE HEART - Once the Tony-Award winning musical is set to hit London in January.

Wine, Fruit, and Gourmet Gift Baskets.
Privacy Notice   |   Front Page
Copyright © All Rights Reserved.