Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Revival Director: Drew Mulligan
Reviewer: Victoria Bawtree
Happy 50th Birthday, National Theatre. The audience at this evening’s performance of Alan Bennett’s People joined ranks with three National Theatre shows in the West End, and several more across the globe in celebrating over 800 productions since 1963. And long may it continue.
This is an exquisitely designed show, set in a crumbling historical house, complete with its own grumbling foundations due to coal excavations, and inhabited by two elderly women – Lady Dorothy Stacpoole (Siân Phillips) and Iris, her companion (Brigit Forsyth). Not overly inspired with her sister, the Archdeacon of Huddersfield’s (Selina Cadell), idea of selling out to the National Trust and allowing people to traipse through her home, Dorothy is lured by other propositions. Bevan (Simon Bubb), a valuer from an auction house, also turns out to be part of an unlikely syndicate of monied people looking to build its own portfolio of houses – provided the owners allow them to be moved South and rebuilt in either Dorset or Wiltshire. Theodore (Paul Moriarty) is a producer of pornographic films, as well as Dorothy’s long-lost acquaintance ‘Teddy’ from her modelling days, looking for a replacement location for his latest venture. While Bevan’s elusive group has to pull out due to cash-flow problems (the curse of the wealthy), Teddy’s promised fee also, inevitably, cannot be paid. And so, Ralph Lumsden (Michael Thomas) of the National Trust gets to bring in his well-to-do band of workers so that the transformation can proceed and doors opened to the paying public, complete with the full – warts and all – history of the house and its inhabitants.
The cast feels extremely experienced and at home in this production. Siân Phillips, in particular, carries the weight of this show with enviable energy and poise: one has no hesitation in believing her modelling background, and also has sympathy with her reluctance to sell-out her privacy and her family’s ancestral home. Brigit Forsyth is impressive as the slightly stooped Iris, whose innocence of the world around her leads to a steady flow of genteel one-liners. Selina Cadell as Dorothy’s forthright sister is also a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, however, Bennett’s script doesn’t flow effortlessly as one has come to expect, and revelations about some of the characters as the story progresses lack impact. There are very funny moments, particularly as the band of workers and actors on the set of the porn film go about their business, but the inclusion of the token sight-impaired bishop with wandering hands leaves one slightly nonplussed and with a feeling that the stereotypes are being rolled out again. Visually, on the other hand, the set cannot be faulted and the transformation from dilapidated pile to opulent grandeur is particularly beautiful. The cast has star quality, from small cameos to its leading lady, and the script has many lines and observations to raise a smile.
Bennett writes in his introduction, that ‘everywhere nowadays has its price and the more inappropriate the setting the better’. With the National Trust now the unlikely custodian of the Big Brother house, Bennett’s idea that life will outstrip his ‘paltry imagination’ indeed seems to ring true. In People, however, the plot remains improbable in places through questions of why a character should be present in the first place, and connections between them seem all too quick and convenient. Certainly, for this reviewer, any deep and meaningful morals lurking beneath the surface were not lingered over for too long.