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People, National Theatre

Alan Bennett

Directed by Nicholas Hytner
★★★★
Pros: A funny and enjoyable watch, plus a brilliant performance from Frances de la Tour and a great set.
Cons: To its core audience, this might be provocative humour, but to me it felt quite conventional.
Our Verdict: An enjoyable night out. Definitely worth seeing, but it didn’t change my life.
Courtesy of Alastair Muir for The Telegraph
Unlike a lot of the people in the audience of People, I am not a Bennett expert (although I loved Talking Heads as a teenager). Consequently, I approached this with manageable expectations and little reverence. As such, it was a very fun evening.
People tells the story of a family’s struggle and disagreements over what to do with their crumbling stately home. The National Trust is interested in receiving the house as a donation, which would involve accepting the unwelcome presence of people. The family are also courted by an auctioneer who sidelines as a representative of ‘The Concern’ – an enigmatic group who buy up properties for their own private use. They do a similar job to the National Trust, but they keep people out. But the most persuasive offer comes from a ‘Mr Theodore’, who offers £5,000 to use the location for a film (which turns out to be a porn film).
Frances de la Tour and Selina Cadell are brilliant as warring sisters, Dorothy and June. They quabble in their dilapidated but huge drawing room, kept company by Dorothy’s hilarious, shabby “companion” Iris, played wonderfully by Linda Bassett. Iris and Dorothy make a great double-act, hiding secrets from the stern June, and singing tunelessly to old classics.
Nicholas le Provost as the representative of the National Trust is also particularly excellent; bumbling, over-excited, and completely oblivious to the inappropriateness of his behaviour. He assures Iris she must tell the visitors to the house about her story (she is the illegimate child of Dorothy’s father). When she says “But they will think I’m mad!”, he replies “Even better!”. He’s opportunistic and understands that the best form of pretence is that of genuineness.
The second half of the play includes some great slapstick comedy when the porn film crew try and get along with their filming, in the face of many obstacles including a dire lack of “wood” and the impromptu arrival of June’s friend, the Bishop. And the on-stage renovation of the house (which goes from run-down crumbling old castle to garishly renewed National Trust property in about five minutes) manages to be both impressive and funny.
All this adds up to a lot of fun. But sometimes the cheeky tone of the delivery, and the deep-sounding one-liners made me feel that Bennett was really trying to be provocative and bold. Many of his audience members might be National Trust members themselves, and from their perspective perhaps it was, but to me, People felt quite conventional. The predicament of the modern upper class was much more humorously and bitingly portrayed in Laura Wade’s Posh (which is incidentally being adapted into a movie, which I look forward to!). A lot of the ideas in People are not new (Bennett says about Thatcherite Britain: “Everything had a price, and if it didn’t… it didn’t have a value”).
Not that that really mattered. It’s not groundbreaking, and it was never outrageously funny, but People was a solid, fun and enjoyable watch which I would highly recommend for a nice evening out.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

People runs at the National Theatre until 15th May 2013.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or book online at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/people

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