Alan Bennett’s latest play, People, is quite different from the plays he has written in recent years. It is a glorious romp stuffed full of one liners, a hilarious seaside postcard of a play, but one which also has attitude, thoughtfulness and compassion. It is the kind of mixture which only Alan Bennett could write. Dorothy Stacpoole, an elderly former model, fashionista and a peeress in her own right, has been festering away in the crumbling Stacpoole stately pile for a very long time, along with her companion Iris, in spite of the efforts of her archdeacon sister to prize them out. The moment of crisis has arrived when something must be done about it and there is talk of selling the house to the National Trust or a consortium who will move it, lock stock and Dorothy, from South Yorkshire down to the south of England. Neither of these are what Dorothy wants and thanks to a chance encounter with an old flame some rather more interesting events intervene as the filming of a down market porn film in the house opens the two ladies eyes to new possibilities in life and shows them a way out of their isolation and inactivity. This is vintage Bennett territory as institutions are slyly, but not unkindly, mocked and social assumptions are questioned. Exactly why are the middle classes prepared to be herded round the shell of somebody’s former life with volunteers in every room waiting to give out information, prepared to give their time for only the promise of “a cup of tea and a flapjack”? Do we really know why we are there? There are some bizarre things happening in what has come to be known as Britain’s “heritage industry”. I walked around one of them in York this summer, “York’s Chocolate Story”, and there are many more examples. The play’s title is a reminder that people are a nuisance. The first thing that any family who makes enough money does is buy themselves space from other people, and even space from each other. Few of us would share our homes and allow people to traipse around our property, however sprawling, unless there was no alternative. The Yorkshire phrase, always uttered with dread, “living on top of each other” sums it up perfectly. The title is also a reminder that people come first, they deserve care and respect. Dorothy matters, she is not just a eccentric turn for the benefit of a stream of visitors and during the play we see her reclaim her self respect and her dignity.
Sian Phillips is an absolute knockout as Dorothy. In a play where the past and the present intertwine it is important that we can see both the elderly Dorothy and the elegant model that she once was as she comes out of her shell. It is a performance of great wit and style. Brigit Forsyth is a delightful contrast to her as Dorothy’s companion Iris, shuffling around and delivering some of the best lines with perfect timing and the two of them make a great mischief making partnership. Selena Cadell also gives a very sharp and precise performance as June the archdeacon and the large cast moves the whole play along with great skill and speed. The end part of the play is a marvel of stagecraft and timing.
Bob Crowley is one of our most experienced set designers and he has clearly had a wonderful time designing the wreckage of a great house which becomes a character in its own right, as it needs to. Richard Eyre as director knows exactly how to make Alan Bennett’s work shine after working with him so often and gets the tone of the play exactly right- a delicate business when it comes to Bennett’s writing.
There was a full house for the matinee that I saw and most of those in the audience had had their tickets for a long time. They were older people but sharp, lively and engaged and there was a buzz among them which matched the energy on stage. We went home feeling energised and ready to sing Downtown to anyone who would listen. At the end of the play Dorothy says, “Let lost be lost. Let gone be gone, and not fetched back”. We all have a future, short or long and it is this mindset which allows Alan Bennett’s writing to continue to sparkle. We don’t have to forget the past but we don’t have to allow ourselves to be fossilised within it either. The English have a tendency to be rather too fond of doing that. We should all be thankful that Alan Bennett is still around to point these things out and shake us up a bit. No wonder he is so much loved………. well maybe not so much by the National Trust after this one but the rest of us are still cheering.