Writer: Alan Bennett
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Reviewer: Joseph Leigh
The National Theatre’s production of Alan Bennett’s latest comedy starts with a shock and a bang. Centred around a decaying country house and the last in the line of its ancestral inhabitants, People is an accessible comedy that is at times verging on risqué but never lewd, and teeters on the brink of cutting satire without ever quite taking the plunge into its depths.
There are some admirable performances from the production’s critically acclaimed cast, most notably Brigit Forsyth, whose Iris is both comical and touching. Forsyth displays a superb control of her physicality as well as a natural talent for comic timing, and manages to bring genuine humour through the simplest of actions. On the whole the cast performs to a high standard, although there are unfortunately odd moments where lines are hesitant or delivered up stage to be lost into the wings. These blips mar what are otherwise enjoyable performances, and are particularly disappointing in a production by a company as prestigious as the National Theatre. There are also moments when the ensemble lacks energy; in particular during the montage in which the house is renovated the cheers and leaps of the group lack any real passion or drive.
The piece itself is entertaining, and there is polite laughter throughout. However, there are no side splittingly funny moments, nor are there any comedic points that stand out as being particularly memorable. The piece has a depressed sense of lost nostalgia permeating through it, hammered home by the constant message that modern society is driven by making money at the expense of the true value of things, and this tends to mute the comedic elements.
The plotline and message are slightly laboured, and even the reveals where characters that previously purport to uphold the lamented lost moral standards turn out to be driven by money do little to keep up the momentum. The production’s use of a country house, ancestral home to a family who we are told have always put wealth and position above all things, as the object which the modern world now seeks to exploit also jars with the message that is trying to be portrayed. The wealthy protagonist is too likeable and has too much pathos for the audience to challenge the hypocrisy of her criticism over those now seeking to exploit her position, and so the piece forms an opinion that is very much on her side. When she asks why it is her place to address the wrongs of her ancestors there is very little come back, and what response is provided comes from a character later revealed to be a hypocrite. Her lamenting about loss of the past and a desire to return to how things were is heartfelt, and the script does little to nothing to address the conflict between this old exploitation and the new that it complains about. This leaves an impression that the issue being addressed is not people placing value on money per se, but rather the wrong sort of people doing so.
The set is absolutely striking, and is a painstakingly accurate and impressively beautiful recreation of a grand room within a country house. It is not simply a backdrop, and the production makes active use of this dynamic setting. Combined with impressive lighting and an effective use of sound, People sets the scene perfectly.
This is a good production that can be enjoyed by a diverse audience. It has some cheeky humour in it that may cause the odd blush but will be hard pushed to cause offence, and creates an exquisite setting. Fans of Bennett would be well advised to see this production.