Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Nichols Hytner and Drew Mulligan
Reviewer: Matthew Nichols
You know Alan Bennett, right? Cuddly old Alan Bennett. “Confirmed National Treasure” Alan Bennett. Possibly our most celebrated living stage dramatist, with a spiritual home at the National on the South Bank. So it’s potentially very interesting that his most recent hit there, now on tour, is a biting stab at how we live now, the National Trust, and a modern society preoccupied with how we “value” and quantify things. On paper, it’s sharp, witty and loaded with scope for Bennett to explore his thesis. Sadly, it’s far from his best work, and thoroughly flawed.
Dorothy Stacpoole (Sian Phillips) and her dotty friend Iris (Brigit Forsyth) live, huddled in coats and blankets, in a tiny corner of a crumbling old South Yorkshire mansion. They can’t afford to heat it, and Dorothy’s sister, June (Selina Cadell) a pious minister, is determined that they sell the property on to the National Trust, represented here by an oily Ralph Lumsden (Michael Thomas.) When one of Dorothy’s old friends, Theodore (Paul Moriarty) appears, he offers her another solution.
The main problem with the play is that it’s gently amusing, rather than properly funny. Bennett’s plot seems to have been contrived to serve his argument, rather than the other way round, and there is a largely flat first half, followed by a much more lively second. Too often, the writing implies something, and then states it. And much of it feels wearily old-hat. The pornographers in the second act belong in a different play (and a different period) altogether, and the arguments feel like they’ve already been had, heard and won.
This is possibly an atypical response, though, and a – largely senior – capacity audience roared laughing throughout. There are things to recommend here. Bob Crowley’s set is spectacular, beautifully lit by James Farncombe, and there’s a stunning coup de theatre towards the end. Hytner’s direction – recreated for the tour by Drew Mulligan – is brisk and unfussy, and there are some neat one-liners. The performances are uneven, however. Forsyth seemed vocally strained throughout, while some of the smaller rôles felt crudely sketched. Still, Simon Bubb is nicely oily as a power broker bookending the piece, and Sian Phillips is truly majestic in a great part. Her agility and nimbleness defy her age, and she carries a regal presence that lifts the whole venture.
This really should be a lot better, but it recalls most of Bennett’s better work, and pales by comparison. We’ve a dotty old woman (A Private Function), a terribly dim actress in porn (Her Big Chance from Talking Heads), a railing against the Thatcherite 80s (The History Boys), and a look at how we define our nation and how we live (Enjoy, Bennett’s masterpiece.) Consider this, though: if this script had arrived at the National with someone else’s name on it, would they have produced it?