Review: People, National Theatre

“People spoil things”

Were I watching Alan Bennett’s new play People at home on DVD, I would probably make it a drinking game, with a shot to be taken every time the title appears. Except it wouldn’t last very long at all, no matter how strong your liver, as it is repeated, repeated and repeated in this lament for the fading fortunes of the English aristocracy. Dorothy Stacpoole, a former model who now lives a semi-reclusive life with her companion Iris, is being forced to decide the fate of her near-decrepit South Yorkshire stately home: should some of the contents be sold on to private investors, who are also interested in buying the whole house, or should it be given to the National Trust, who Bennett has decided to take aim at with this piece of writing.

In an incredibly slow-moving opening 30 minutes or so, it becomes apparent that Dorothy – Frances De La Tour oozing hauteur – favours the former option, whilst her Archdeacon sister June is determined that it should be the latter. Bennett rails against the commodification of history and the creation of ‘experiences’ but curiously he makes Dorothy the mouthpiece with her fears of having people traipsing through her home and disrupting her life. Quite why we’re expected to feel sympathy for this poor little (formerly) rich girl whose inability to take responsibility has left the house, and her life, in the state it is in, I’m not sure.

As the middle classes are berated for their greedy invasiveness, the upper classes get something of a free pass as it is the National Trust who are derided for imposing a new form of feudalism, an argument that left me a little baffled as I’m not 100% sure, but I don’t think Trust membership is mandatory – so if it bothers that much, just don’t join up. Bennett also moves around other areas with very mixed results. The issue of women in the clergy is carelessly bandied about and discarded with no little pithiness and the dip into pseudo-Carry On… territory as a porn film crew take up residence is breathtaking and not in a good way. Depictions of gay men and Eastern Europeans are appallingly misjudged (but sadly rapturously received), credulity stretched ridiculously to get a laugh from the predictable arrival of a bishop, it is an altogether most odd moment.

And there’s also a sense of the kitchen sink being thrown at the production as we approach the end, both from Bennett and Hytner. Barely needed plot revelations tumble out, crowding the culmination of the story unnecessarily, and the addition of a random interpretative dance routine detracts from the transformation of Bob Crowley’s dilapidated set into something worth visiting. The lurches into grandiose speechifying disrupt the flow of the play, lending a portentous quality that lacks subtlety and sympathy and unfortunately reminds one of the stultifying earlier moments.

But it is also the physical context in which one sees a show that characterises one’s response. For example, I have my difficulties with farces, which are almost always exacerbated by feeling completely alienated from an audience that starts laughing hysterically from the first pratfall. And so too with Bennett plays, there’s usually a feeling that the audience is determined to laugh at every single thing, regardless of what is actually being said. Thus loud laughter accompanies the phrase ‘you’re one of those nancies’, somebody honked loudly at the reference to ‘the death of Diana’ and some people, including the woman behind me, tittered inanely at what felt like every third word throughout the entire play, even in the more reflective moments.

Undoubtedly, Frances De La Tour is entirely watchable but frequently made me feel like she was far too good for the material and Selina Cadell does well with the thankless part of her sister June. Nicholas Le Prevost’s National Trust representative is too poorly written by Bennett though to make serious meat out of his argument against that organisation and it pained me to see so good an actress as Linda Bassett constrained into the role of dotty companion Iris. People is the kind of play that stereotypical National Theatre audiences will lap up, indeed the run sold out well in advance, but its plodding pace, clunky construction, shaky characterisations and enduring obsession with the class system seem as if from an older era and certainly not fresh from the pen of a writer who is capable of much better.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 2nd April

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