Grey Gardens meets Downton Europorn: People
Alan Bennett's play People is packing in audiences at the National Theatre. While enjoyable for the performances, design and occasional flash of bare buttocks and thigh, you may find yourself wondering what is the point of it. It isn't funny enough to be a comedy and not insightful enough to satire. But I'm hoping that it is just not a particularly good play rather than a desperate grab at elitism. As surely what National Theatre audiences don't want to do is to look down and feel smug about people that visit places of interest across the country?
If anything it is a very mild satire about a run down house that the National Trust is hoping to acquire from aristocrat Dorothy Stacpoole, played by Frances de la Tour. Dorothy was a former fashion model but now is walking around in a moth eaten coat and gym shoes. She sleeps on the floor in front of an electric heater and apart from her companion Iris, does not see many people. Her younger sister who is a respectable yet overbearing local archdeacon, has hatched the plan to hand over the place to the Trust to deal with the problem of the house, the estate and the lingering liberal guilt from her family's ties to the local coal mine that saw many workers killed. Since various past strategies to restore the property have failed, rather than hand it over to the trust Dorothy flirts with any idea for income, such as using it as a film set (albeit for porn). The decay of the house and Dorothy's fortunes, combined with the preoccupation with class, stately buildings and status makes you feel like this is Grey Gardens meets Downton Abbey meets Eastern Eurotrash porn.
The cast are great and make the most of the scenario. Things are never boring but they also tend to play to type. Frances de la Tour as Dorothy is funny and engaging although not entirely believable as an aristocrat in a moth eaten coat. Linda Bassett as her companion Iris continues in her tradition of playing downtrodden women well. Selina Cadell as the bossy sister June has a delivery that is lovely and grating.
But to really appreciate this play you probably have to think that the National Trust is some ogre of an organisation. And that their attempts to lure in visitors with walnut cake and coffee disguise the shortcomings and architectural merit of these historic houses. In the programme notes, Bennett seems to bemoan that Jeffrey Archer is the voice Disraeli at Hughenden and that the National Trust provide a porno tour of London's streets of Soho via an app, but it is hard to see how all this adds up to any great atrocities against taste. The play might have been more interesting if it questioned whether these homes are worth preserving in the first place, and in what state. At times it seems to wander down this route but ends up favouring a sloppy subplot of a porn shoot that conveniently pads out the play with bare buttocks and upper thighs to an acceptable running time for an interval.
It was possibly the confusing and rambling plot as much as the odd shape of the theatre seats that led to a lady behind me exclaiming at particularly quiet and serious moment in the first half "My hip hurts!" It was the first real laugh during the show. When the great restoration finally takes place it is hard to know whether to be disenchanted by it or cheering. Most of the audience seemed to cheer suggesting the audience was firmly on the side of the good work of the National Trust.
All told it makes for a perplexing evening, but just as fans of stately homes will continue to flock to National Trust houses, admirers of Bennett's work will still want to smugly see. The sneering runs through to early April and it will be in the cinemas as part of the NT Live season in 2013.