Review – People, National Theatre

Monday 5 November 2012

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.


14 Responses to “Review – People, National Theatre”

  1. ja Says:

    I wrote a memo to self to never bother with Bennett again after suffering through his WH Auden play at the national a year or two ago. Obviously from your review, a wise move.

  2. Josho Says:

    We thought it “spanked botties” all round. A real toe cringer of “lovey” acting. Miss de la Tour was left high and dry with nobody to play against as everybody was busy, with one exception – Jack Chissick – shouting with full gusto at the audience. Nick Hytner – shame!!

  3. Sandown Says:

    Unlike Bennett’s last two plays at the National, at least this one is not about middle-aged men lusting after young boys.

    That might have been rather tactless, under present circumstances.

  4. Baroness Hollick Says:

    I’m going, but I was left furious by the horrendously overrated History Boys, and not beguiled enough by The Habit of Art. But F “De la Soul” T can do no wrong, IMHO.

  5. Andrea M Says:

    Oh this was a dull play, with no vibrancy of the here and now of modern life. there are better characters in rotting country houses in Country House Rescue on Channel 4.
    Leaving at half time seemed a good idea: I only wish we had. We need much livelier voices on the National Theatre stage, this, for me, was turgid. If only artist Grayson Perry wrote theatre – his observations and wit is spot on.

  6. mijosh Says:

    I found it hard to believe that one of our National Treasures was capable of writing anything so crass,witless,totally unbelievable and boring. As Dorothy Parker said: This wasn’t just plain bad,it was fancy bad,it was bad with raisins.

  7. Mike Brown Says:

    A sad diappointment from a gifted playwright who has given us so many treasures. This play was a cheap dig at a minor institution and contained little worthwhile saying.The ‘ porn shoot’ episiode brought easy laughs which would have fitted in well into a “Carry On” film. It said it all.

  8. Matthew Says:

    The really sad thing about this play is not that it is stinkingly bad but that it is so mediocre. Bennett’s plays have got steadily worse in recent years and this touches new depths. I struggle to see why it was so well reviewed in some quarters. Or are they in such thrall that they failed to see that it offered no new insight, was structurally limp and was as dreary, cosy, unfunny and lazy as a man who watches life from a comfortable chair and is amused by his own fundament. I couldn’t wait to get out of the theatre.

  9. Markee Says:

    Saw the ‘play’ yesterday. Travelled all the way from North West England for this rubbish. Boring, boring, boring – very disappointing – all that acting talent gone to waste – wish I’d sold my tickets on e-bay for £90 each, oh, I wish I had. If I’d written this it wouldn’t have seen the light of day.

  10. chris Says:

    Am sorry to see so many reviews proving Bennett’s (missed) point about our obsessions with bright lights and glitter. The profundity of lines such as “When will people see that decay is progress?” clearly missed in superficial viewings. Sad that Alan’s finer points were too subtle to take on board. He remains a master of proving his point.

  11. Baldassaro Says:

    All four of our party thoroughly disliked it. The farcical bits around the porn film were OK, but the rest seemed shallow, snobbish and forced, with cardboard characters and no real human engagement. It was like Shaw is supposed to be at his worst. I think we were prejudiced by seeing Cocktail Sticks the week before, which is much funnier than People, but is also human and moving. Interesting that it’s Cocktail Sticks and Hymn that are transferring to the West End rather than the over-hyped People.

  12. Unusually, I can’t agree with you on this one whingers – I could only muster one star for it.

  13. Glen Morranjie Says:

    Belatedly saw this in mid-April 2013, so it must be very close to the end of its run. I got a last minute ticket middle of front row. Overall amusing and enjoyable, though the porn film stuff seemed to belong in another play.

    I assumed the empting urine from chamberpots stuff was a not very subtle comment about taking the piss. Don’t bust a gut to see this.

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