Review: People – National Theatre, London

“People, People who need people”… Barbara Streisand’s famous song wasn’t the inspiration for Alan Bennett’s latest play for the National Theatre. In fact if Bennett’s theme is understood it’s more a case of people who don’t want people.

In a large, crumbling Georgian pile Lady Dorothy Stacpole is confined to one room, the leaking roof, broken boilers, and general air of decay way beyond her limited income to repair. It makes for a tragic image, the grande dame reduced to sleeping on the floor in front of a two bar electric heater.

There’s hope on the horizon, though, the National Trust could be interested in taking on the property but Dorothy’s not convinced at the thought of the Great British unwashed trudging through her ancestral home.
It all looks a promising premise for a play. Sadly Bennett seems to get distracted and, instead of concentrating on this plot, seems to offer director Nicholas Hytner a taster of several possible stories. Thrown into the pot are fragmentary sub plots concerning a mysterious organisation that purchases historic buildings for the exclusive use of their members, a superfluous bishop, a 1970s porn shoot farce, and a look at the social stigma of the gentry.

All of these plots in their own right could have made good plays but, by combining them into one piece the effect seems muddled. An idea is just established before it is abandoned for the next plot. Bennett’s trademark dark humour is present but it’s often swamped in the need to establish characters and backstory.
As the three central female characters, Frances de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell work well together, Bassett in particular moving as the ‘companion’ Iris. De la Tour works hard to give Dorothy some depth but there’s a feeling that the role needs more acid to balance the eccentricity.

Away from the central triptych remaining characters seem sketchier. Miles Jupp’s auctioneer turned developer and Nicholas le Prevost’s National Trust representative are perhaps the most formed but, even so, we really only get a glimpse into their motives. Peter Egan’s porn director Theodore, on the other hand, seems little more than a comic device without any real centre.

There is though, another major character here, that of Bob Crowley’s Georgian splendour of a set. Filling the Lyttleton stage, anyone who has wandered the rooms of a stately home tour will feel instantly at home, even if as here the room is in severe terminal decay.

There are moments to enjoy but like many stately home visits, Bennett’s People seems difficult to take in in its entirety on one viewing. Bennett’s skills as a writer are evident but less would have been definitely more.

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