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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Selina Cadell and Miles Jupp/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

If Britain had a Playwright Laureate as a counterpart to its Poet Laureate, the person would certainly be Alan Bennett. With plays like 40 Years On, The Madness of George III and The History Boys, Bennett has given expression to the fiber and lifeblood of his native land. His latest play, People, at the National Theatre, focuses on the changes that have occurred in the past three decades in “this green and pleasant land,” only, as he points out, these days the land is not all that green or pleasant. Much has been written in theatre and elsewhere about the major catastrophes Britain has endured over the past century, including the loss of its Empire and two horrific World Wars. Few playwrights, however, have taken note of what has occurred in the U.K. in the last 30 years, the period that is the focus of People.

The scene is the immense, high-ceilinged drawing room of a baronial country house that has been in the Stacpoole family for nearly 500 years. The last of the family line is Dorothy, played by the inimitable Frances de la Tour. In The History Boys, de la Tour played the secondary role of the only female teacher. In People, she is front and center throughout the play, dispensing witty bon mots and razor-sharp repartee right and left – a Grande Dame in full sail. The mansion is at the end of its days – the draperies and furniture musty and in disrepair, no hot water to speak of and no money. Dorothy’s younger sister June (Selina Cadell), an archdeacon of the Anglican Church, is a no-nonsense model of efficiency who wants to turn the house over to the National Trust and be done with it. Dorothy and her companion Iris (Linda Bassett), who live alone in the house, will have none of it.

In the opening scene, a would-be rescuer for Dorothy appears in the person of Bevan (Miles Jupp), a smooth, urbane character who represents private financiers interested in purchasing the house and turning it into a high-class corporate retreat. Their one caveat is that it be moved from its present location to a pleasanter spot such as Dorset. This idea, not surprisingly, is abhorrent to Dorothy and Iris. Nevertheless, they wish to hold on to Bevan as a weapon against June.

Bennett has always shown a flair for comedy, and there is no shortage of it here. In a farcical scene, which admittedly is a bit of a stretch, an old beau of Dorothy’s, Theodore (Peter Egan), turns up unexpectedly. A threadbare documentary filmmaker, he promises to pay Dorothy for the opportunity to film in the “great house.” The film, however, turns out to be pornographic, and also Theodore has no money. Never mind. Teddie, as Dorothy calls him, rekindles fond memories of her past days when she was a successful fashion model. She is delighted when asked to appear in the film wearing one of her old Balenciaga gowns she retrieves from the attic, and in which she looks smashing.

In the end, however, June wins. Bevan, the smooth operator, cannot deliver, and the National Trust takes over. The mansion is restored and faceless tourists troupe through the house where Dorothy becomes a sort of hostess. But at what a price. In Dorothy’s eyes, and in those of Bennett, Britain has not been preserved in recent years; it has become calcified into one vast Madame Tussauds. According to Dorothy, the downward spiral in Britain began in the 1980s. Before that, civility and taking care of others was “taken for granted.” For Bennett, Dorothy’s plight is a metaphor for the nation. In an introduction to the play he writes, “We were told in the 80s and pretty constantly since that we can’t afford to take anything for granted, whereas to my mind in a truly civilized state the more that can be taken for granted in terms of health, education, employment and welfare, the better off we are.”

People is not a major play on the order of Madness or History Boys; it is too desultory and perhaps too parochial. But it is a thoughtful, entertaining parable that benefits not only from Bennett’s sly wit and way with words, but the full resources of the National Theatre: the always sure touch of director Nicholas Hytner, the striking set of designer Bob Crowley, and the unmatchable actors and ensemble the National invariably provides.


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