People. Leeds Grand Theatre. 7-11-13

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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.

Two books which took my hand and led me forward.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you thought special…particular to you. And here is it…set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met. Maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” – Hector, The History Boys. — Alan Bennett

The Boy With the Topknot.  Sathnam Sangeera.

At first sight this book would not be a likely candidate for me to identify with in the way that Alan Bennett describes. It is Sathnam Sangeera’s account of growing up in the Sikh community in Wolverhampton, finding a life in the London media away from home, and returning to explore the culture and family which he had left, something that I have no experience of and knew little about.  I might have expected to find it fascinating, moving and funny- it’s a great book full of honesty insight and humour- but identification? Probably not. All the same I devoured my way through every page, feeing completely at home with Sathnam as he explains how he came to terms with living with a foot in two different cultures and looked into his past in order to understand his present. It took me a while to work out why, and then I got it. You see you don’t have to move away from your own ethnic background to leave behind the culture that you were brought up in. I was the first in my family to get a degree and I also moved away to a life very different from that of my relatives. I was never able to talk to them about books and theatre- it wasn’t something that they were interested in- and I developed completely different interests and tastes to theirs. I know what it is like to love people and be close to them when you have absolutely nothing in common. Even if there are no family secrets to uncover that situation would make you think, and when there are, as there were with Sathnam and I, it leads any thoughtful intelligent adult towards a journey of discovery which is difficult but ultimately fulfilling and even essential. Reading about someone else making that journey was not just a window on another culture, it shone a light on what has happened in my own life during the last ten years. That is what books are for.

A Cracking of the Heart. David Horovitz.

This is an account, by the writer David Horovitz, of the life of his daughter Sarah, a writer and political activist, written after her early death at the age of 44 from heart complications associated with her Turner Syndrome.  It is a very moving and heartfelt book, fiercely honest in the way that only someone writing their way through deep sadness can be, a compassionate record of his relationship with his daughter, which shines a light into the dark places of his grief and tries to make sense of their joys and difficulties together as he slowly gets to know her in a new way by reading her writing and finding out more about the parts of her life which they didn’t share. Sarah was clever and creative, a caring woman with a strong social conscience, loved by her friends but shy of developing relationships with the opposite sex. Thanks to her Turner syndrome she was physically short and far from strong, with a weak heart and hips and poor hearing, but she never let this hold her back and led a full and active life, politically engaged and always ready to champion the cause of anyone who needed help. As I read David Horovitz’s book I was moved by his openness, his willingness to go to difficult places in order to understand his lost daughter better and I came to like him very much. He is hard on himself, perhaps harder than he needs to be, but grief leads you to think that way sometimes and understanding leads to acceptance. This is the process which he describes in the book.

I was able to read with an understanding and insight based on personal experience. I have Turner Syndrome myself and for the last ten years I have been on the national committee of the UK Turner Syndrome Support Society so I have met many other women and girls with TS and their parents. If there had been a false note I would have known, not through cleverness but through personal identification and spending time listening to the experiences of others who faced similar challenges to those that Sarah faced. I know that David Horovitz is writing with truth and clarity because I have met women like Sarah and I have met parents who felt as he did when he is describing their relationship.

This is a brave book and I wish that I could thank him personally for writing it. Sadly I will never meet Sarah but I feel that I know her through his account and through the people that I have met.  She would be very proud of her father.

The Habit of Art. National Theatre. 19th December 2009.

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Alex Jennings and Richard Griffiths in The Habit of Art. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The first thing that I feel like saying about Alan Bennett’s latest play is that it is clever as a barrel load of monkeys, not clever in a self conscious way but understated and self assured. Here is someone writing who knows from experience what works and what doesn’t. There is no need for him to bang any drums about it. It shows a complete mastery of structure and contrast, something which is used to great comic effect. We have a company on stage who are rehearsing a play about a fictional meeting between Benjamin Britten and W H Auden, and we follow their trials and foibles as they struggle to get things right. There are lots of wry theatrical touches and irony as alongside this we see parts of the play which they are rehearsing during an early run through. The whole premise of The Habit of Art is a kind of double take. The audience are given an insight into the process of creativity by both the present day characters and by watching Britten and Auden as they meet again, following a long and acrimonious fall out, when Britten comes to ask for help with a libretto for a new opera, Death in Venice. The long scene in the second half where we are allowed to settle and watch Britten and Auden talk about life and creativity is beautifully done, and it gives the play a weight and focus which it would be lost without. I also found the scene where Britten is auditioning a choirboy as Auden talks with a rent boy very moving. Nobody else would write a scene like that and if they tried to it wouldn’t have the same effect. Watching the play I felt that a lifetimes experience had been distilled into the writing and only someone with that depth of experience could have done it, but at the same time it felt like a young man’s play, fizzing along with wit and energy. It is sometimes blissfully funny.

The actors have to keep up with Bennett’s pace and a lot is asked of them. Richard Griffiths (playing Fitz and W H Auden) and Alex Jennings (playing Henry and Benjamin Britten)  have to constantly come in and out of character as Auden and Britten to stop the run in order to question or complain and they both do this with complete conviction. You are never in any doubt the second that it happens who you are listening to. Alex Jennings is wonderful. You can see exactly why Henry has been cast as Britten but he is also a distinctly different character who watches what is going on with great concentration and sometimes frustration and he has his own back story. We don’t hear very much of it but his performance is so beautifully realised that we can fill in the gaps for ourselves. Adrian Scarborough, another fine actor who can do far more than is asked of him here, plays Donald and Humphrey Carpenter, and he is also delightful. Donald has been stuck with the thankless task of playing a “device” (Humphrey Carpenter wrote biographies of Auden and Britten and appears to comment on the action) and he needs lots of reassurance and patience from his stage manager Kay (Frances De La Tour) as he attempts to part build and fret about something which simply isn’t worth fretting about. He knows that and so does everybody else, but he has his moment- a typical Bennett one- at the start of the second half which I won’t spoil.

The way that artistry can be given to a person who seems unattractive and undeserving of it, that someone downright unpleasant can make work of great sensitivity and beauty, is an interesting subject. Peter Shaffer tackled it in Amadeus and I am glad that Alan Bennett turned his mind to it for this play. I just want him to keep writing forever.

Alan Bennett at Hay festival. 30-05-09

Most of the people sitting waiting for Alan Bennett at the Hay festival had had their tickets for some time and they were as excited as a quiet, well heeled and frankly rather posh bunch of literary types ever get. He was announced by an equally excited person who was anxious not to waste our time with any words of his own that might deprive us of some of the great man’s. When we finally saw him some of us cheered just because he was standing in front of us. He accepted his reception with quiet detachment, simply stating that if any of us had been there the day before we would be getting a rerun with a few diversions. Only Alan Bennett could get away with that when those listening had paid £25 a ticket for an hour in his presence.
It was very simple. Pure Bennett really. He read from Untold stories (his published diary extracts) and moved, amused and delighted his audience in equal measure. His sense of timing is pitch perfect and to hear his own unique voice live, reading his equally carefully timed anecdotes and musings was something to treasure. As a public person he is quiet and unassuming, giving nothing away and keeping out of the limelight, but his writing tells us everything we need to know about his basic decency, wisdom and compassion for the world around him. It is all there laid out for us in his prose with wit and economy and that’s why his readers feel not just admiration but enormous warmth for him and even love.
After some very brave and starstruck members of the audience asked a few questions which he answered carefully and politely without giving much away (he has told us anything he wants us to know already in his work) James Naughtie presented him with a Listening Books award. It was presented with love to the greatest living Englishman and nobody in the audience was in any danger of nominating someone else for that title. He liked it too, even the quiet thank you which was all he said as he walked off stage made that clear. No wonder. Rather than a useless bit of glass or metal work they had found him a first edition of Bleak House.