Alan Bennett’s new play, People, slips effortlessly into the canon of his work, with its saucy “Blackpool postcard” humour and undercurrent of resentment and despair.
It takes place in a wonderfully rendered, decaying stately home – all mouldy dust-jackets and shards of sunlight creeping through moth-eaten curtains.
It centres on two tragicomic spinsters: Dorothy, to whom the house was bequeathed, and her doddery old “companion”, who whiles away the days in front of an electric heater, knitting scarves for the troops in the Falklands (the play, it should be noted, doesn’t take place in the past).
Dorothy’s sister has decided that Dorothy really wants to give the house to the National Trust, although Dorothy isn’t quite so sure. And, after meeting the Trust representative, neither are we. Bennett pulls few punches in his portrayal of the revered organisation (surely Bennett’s core audience), which is solely interested in making a commodity out of the more squalid aspects of the family’s history.
Nothing pleases him more, for example, than learning that pots of urine dispensed by dignitaries including Thomas Hardy and Neville Chamberlain are stewing in a closet upstairs.
Dorothy refuses to see the parallels drawn by the National Trust between the fading grandeur of the house and England itself (or, at least, the idea of “Englishness”) – but it’s a parallel that Bennett uses liberally, lamenting the days before everything, even a family’s grief, came with a price-tag.
Things are shaken up after a rather unlikely chance encounter between Dorothy and an old flame, which leads to a pornographic movie being filmed in the middle of the hall (best not to ask how, it just kind of happens), at which point your disbelief should be firmly filed in the closet next to the aforementioned chamber-pots.
The play becomes a riotous affair, with the rogueish but implausibly jovial group of pornographers reawakening Dorothy’s sense of fun. The flip-side is that, while the laugh count rises, they feel cheaper for you not having to work very hard for them (jokes about a porn actor failing to achieve “wood” may be funny but they’re not particularly clever).
This is still an Alan Bennett play, though, and the onion-layers of insecurity and secrecy are slowly drawn back as we’re given a heartbreaking glance into the reasons behind the fall of the home.
Frances de la Tour is a delight to watch as the sassy but broken Dorothy, struggling under the weight of both her secrets and the rapidly collapsing house (“even decay is a kind of progress” she quips).
Selena Cadell is excellent as her lesbian archdeacon sister; a character who seems to be an older version of the sexually frustrated vicar from Bennett’s first series of Talking Heads. In fact, the older cast-members rather show up their younger counterparts, who don’t quite live up to their very high standards.
Also worthy of mention is Miles Jupp – probably best known for his appearance as the sycophantic regional PR in Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It – who plays a wickedly corrupt valuer, totting up the worth of the various dolls’ houses and croquet sets littering the stage.
People doesn’t quite stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best of Bennett’s work, but that is a very lofty bar to aspire to. It is, however, a sad, pertinent and very funny play by a real national treasure – and you can’t put a price on that.
First published in City A.M.