Alan Bennett has a bone to pick with the National Trust. He’s been caught by that vague sense of unease that can creep in when you’re pottering through a bedroom once occupied by forgettable King and feel an elderly woman with a name tag and a spare afternoon on Saturdays edge towards you like a sales representative in some Regency Dixon’s. It sounds an ideal mind-worm for some vintage Bennett: a well-observed shanking from the mark inside of the Middle Class. Unfortunately, and despite a noble, measured and often hilarious attempt, Bennett’s attempt to interrogate his flash of squick into a coherent drama is a rare misfire, though one qualified by some brilliant writing and stunning performances.
Lady Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) is trapped in a sort of Yorkshire Grey Gardens, living shabbily in a dilapidated country pile with only her batty ‘companion’ Iris (Linda Bassett, obviously) for company. Her priggish sister June (Selina Cadell, obviously) wants to donate Stacpoole House to the dastardly Trust, but Lady Dorothy can’t bear the thought of her Havishamy existence disintegrating under the footfall of the mildly diverted. To this end she turns to the shadowy promises of Bevan (Miles Jupp), representative of a mysterious ‘concern’ that recently purchased Anglesey, and a rag-tag porno film crew directed by a softly-seedy old flame.
De la Tour is utterly marvellous. Bearing a spark of fragile dignity that we see briefly fanned to a flame, she is the play’s heart and it’s beautiful centre, standing in for the similarly degraded grandeur of the house that echoes around her. Bennett gives her some incredible speeches. A wistful monologue beginning ‘I long for the decay of England…’ is among the best things he has ever written, one of the all-too-rare occasions that People lives up to its inflated nation-play ambitions. Nicholas le Prevost is terrifically monstrous as Trust ambassador Ralph, a cultural fluke-worm in a Tim Wonnacot costume who practically ejaculates down the leg of his cords at the sight of a Chippendale.
There’s some strong comedy too, but a slapstick porn shoot with the timely entrance of a vicar walks a dangerous line between comfortingly predictable and just comfortable. Bennett’s playwriting has always been a bold and saucy refutation of his purring blue-rinse persona, but there are moments here that it all goes (ironically) a bit Carry On Antique’s Roadshow. Still, the effect that all these mildly blue going on has on Lady Dorothy is worth their workmanlike presentation. The better part of People is driven by Bennett’s brilliant and enduring faith that sex, sex of the giggling and smutty variety rather than the bland transcendent sort that aligns your chakra, is a great and vitalising force for good.
Everything else is in disarray. Bennett hasn’t decided what it is he wants to say, what it is he wants to leverage his discomfort to demonstrate. People wants the National Trust to mean something, something about England that has a grim and revealing resonance, but he can’t locate it. Perhaps it’s the guardian of the great old lie of English supremacy, holding the fruits of slavery and feudalism in aspic. Perhaps it’s an indictment of the power of money to buy privacy, or to regulate it. Or maybe it’s just a little vulgar and Bennett is confident that we’ll share in his snobbery. These ideas are sifted and sorted like hats at a jumble sale; the play dons the mantle of social injustice for a moment and admires itself in a fusty old mirror before tossing it off and trying something else. Nothing fits, no answers ring true, an extended joke about the National Trust taking the piss out of its volunteers is sorry stuff, and we end in muddled fashion with the sort of elaborate stage magic that felt a lot more effective back in The Lady in the Van.
Bennett notes in the programme that he usually delivers a new play to Nicholas Hytner (who directs well, though perhaps with too much reverence to the confused script) every four years, yet this was happily finished in three. Perhaps that extra year would have allowed him to better solve the fascinating and promising problem he set himself.