People spoil things.
Alan Bennett clearly has a bone to pick with the National Trust, and there’s no holding back in People, his new play for the National Theatre. Lady Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour, in a part written specifically for her), lives with her companion Iris (a scene-stealing Linda Bassett) in a mouldering, dilapidated family pile in Yorkshire. Dotty cannot afford to maintain the house, and over the course of the play, she is presented with three options: sell to the National Trust, sell to the Concern, a consortium of discerning citizens who would transport the house, brick by brick, to the much more pleasing south west of England, or allow Stacpoole House to become a location for porn films.
Frances de la Tour is good as Dotty, once a model in the 60s, yet now wanders around in pyjamas, slippers and a moth-eaten dressing gown, declaring that ‘decay is a kind of progress’. She’s catching up on the news by reading all the old newspapers stored upstairs (she’s got as far as 1982), singing along to Down Town and reminiscing about those who once stayed in the great house. Bennett does give Dotty some wonderful moments, and de la Tour captures her amusing eccentricities, her nostalgia and her horror at the thought of her house being overrun by National Trust groups. Yet it is Linda Bassett who shines as Dotty’s old companion Iris: even when she’s confined to her armchair, hunched over her knitting (‘for the soldiers’), she inspires laughter, and, though she’s often silent, every look, movement and turn of her head reveals her perfect comic timing.
I couldn’t help but feel, however, that Bennett is lazy with this play. The supporting cast either verge on the caricature or are simply not properly fleshed-out: Miles Jupp is the posh, suave auctioneer and representative of the Concern, arrogant and oleaginously confident in a camel hair coat, repeating the mantra ‘people spoil things’; Selina Caddell, in a tweed twinset and brogues, is Dotty’s formidable, no-nonsense lesbian sister, an archdeacon in cahoots with the National Trust and with plans for ‘celebrity eucharists’; Nicholas le Provost bumbles about the stage in Barbour and corduroy as the Trust’s representative, irritatingly enthusiastic about chamber pots once used by such luminaries as Elgar and Shaw. The set-pieces, too, feel tired and predictable, such as when Dotty’s sister brings a vicar to visit just as the porn shoot happens to be taking place.
In typical Bennett fashion, he discusses the problems that plague him with a wicked dose of humour, and in this case he’s exasperated at how England has lost the plot: there’s mention of library closures, of female bishops and the threat of the internet, but it’s the National Trust that bears the full-force of his excoriation. Members of the NT are described as self-selecting individuals, accused of re-writing history, and are portrayed as an army in one scene where a horde of them descends on Stacpoole House to make it ready for visitors. Dotty and Iris are expelled to the furthest corners of the stage while this transformation takes place, a moving image of the old being bulldozed to make way for the new.
Designer Bob Crowley has created a superb set. Making full use of the cavernous Lyttelton space to bring the crumbling Stacpoole House to life, he has assembled mis-matched furniture, hung old masters and achieved a fragmented plasterwork effect on the walls. The transformation scene is quite stunning, as light floods the stage when curtains are opened, a chandelier drops from the ceiling and a false wall opens up at the rear.
People is the work of a confident Bennett, but I couldn’t help walking away believing that confidence to be misplaced: People feels by turns predictable, inevitable and clichéd. It is funny, of course, but ultimately fails to move because that humour is all there is. Bennett refuses to take his important ideas about progress, power, commodification, history etc. and run with them. Instead People descends into an arguably not-so-funny critique of the National Trust.
Nicholas Hytner, a long-time Bennett collaborator, boldly directs with confidence, eliciting strong performances from his leading ladies, but perhaps he might have dared to ask Bennett for one more draft.