These days new plays by Alan Bennett are cloaked in the kind of secrecy you might expect from a new Mike Leigh play or the latest Bond film.
But we’re not good at keeping secrets so if you don’t want to know anything about People we’ll just tell you that the running time is 2 hours 20 minutes we returned after the interval (it’s the new Bennett, why wouldn’t we?) and you can leave it at that.
Dorothy Stacpoole (Bennett muse Frances de la Tour) is a peeress and ex-model living in a dilapidated country pile with her companion Iris (Linda Bassett, persuasively moth-eaten in a part that would once have been occupied by Liz Smith).
Dot’s archdeacon sister June (Selina Cadell) wants to hand it over to the National Trust but Dorothy is pursuing other options to pay the heating bills including renting the estate out as a location for Peter Egan‘s Mr Theodore to direct a piece of adult entertainment “Reach for the Thigh”.
Cue several glimpses of the rather unlikely porn star’s bottom (he looks far too wholesome to be a porn star. Not, of course, that would we know) and a visit from a conveniently short-sighted bishop (Ms de la Tour’s brother Andy).
People has echoes of Lettice and Lovage, Downton Abbey, a Ray Cooney farce and a mildly funny sit-com with a dash of – as one of the Whingers’ entourage Sharon noted – Sixty Minute Makeover thrown in.
But above all this comes over as Mr Bennett’s public audition for Grumpy Old Men. Even in the programme he goes on about his “unease when going round a National Trust house” and seems to have a very long list of whinges he wants to share with the world. Imagine.
F de la Tour makes, as one might expect, a compelling centre to the piece. She has her own makeover and gets to swan around in some of her magnificent old 50’s gowns. Would it be ungallant to ask how she still fits into them? Designer Bob Crowley has produced a handsome set and there’s an extravagant cast of 18.
In the interests of metaphor there are quite a few implausibilities including unemptied chamber pots and collapsing coal mines but the Whingers’ main reservation is that it’s really not funny enough. We laughed intermittently and weren’t the only ones. The best Andrew could say was he wasn’t bored but Phil did actually glance at his watch a couple of times.
Now this was only the third preview so director Nicholas Hytner will improve things but as the current booking period is sold out (apart from day seats) it matters not a jot what we or anyone else thinks.
The sell-out is thanks to Bennett’s status as a National Treasure so it seems somewhat churlish of his discourse to diss other sorts of similarly loved objects such as the National Trust.
And, actually, we still don’t quite understand his objections.