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.

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Yes Prime Minister. Leeds Grand Theatre. 19-02-11.

“Yes Prime Minister” Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s new play, on tour after a West End run, is a fresh look at their well loved TV characters from Yes Minister. It’s an odd experience to see characters who you know well played by actors who are completely different to the originals yet still have the same names and behave in much the same way, like seeing something familiar through a distorting lens. The theatre was full, mostly older people who were keen to laugh a little too quickly at every joke and clever insinuation and show that they were in the know. They dutifully applauded Sir Humphrey’s two set piece long speeches, one in each half, and even talked out loud about what they were seeing as they watched. A bit late in the day they were enjoying seeing their memories (or their DVD box set) come to life in front of them. It was very funny indeed, nicely played and cleverly timed and I don’t suppose for a moment that they will have gone home disappointed. They had been given exactly what they were promised delivered with style and confidence by a very experienced cast.

I missed Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey very much (that was a one in a million television performance) and there was an edge to the character which has to be there which I thought that Simon Williams missed. Having said that he is a very different actor of course and needed to do something new. Richard McCabe and Chris Larkin had an easier time recreating Jim Hacker and Bernard Wooley. The main update was the introduction of a new character, Claire Sutton, a special policy advisor. This is a new element in modern day politics which has changed the old dynamic between the civil service and Westminster considerably. She was very well played by Charlotte Lucas and it was a relief to be given someone new to watch, taking us away from our old memories and comparisons. It did add a lot but it also diluted the sense that we were watching a duel going on between Hacker and Sir Humphrey, which was one of the main pleasures of the original.

For the new play the old characters have been placed in the present day, during a crisis ridden weekend at Chequers during a European conference. The plot is ridiculous (not necessarily a problem in a farce) involving an oil pipeline, an ambassador from Kumranistan, the director general of the BBC, and a European financial crisis which can only be solved by giving in to the demands of one of the delegates for an underage schoolgirl who will be prepared to engage in some “horizontal diplomacy”. None of it needs to be believable, and it isn’t. It is merely a vehicle for a long succession of witty one liners ( “I can’t let the Americans run a European conference Humphrey. Look at the map!”) and set piece comedic situations. I particularly liked the scene where Bernard was on the phone being given a sequence of numbered prearranged responses to trot out in order to fend off the journalist on the other end.

The set is a good match for the play, and sat very well in the opulent surroundings of Leeds Grand theatre. It is a perfect recreation of a room at chequers, the kind of stylish realism that used to be commonplace, beautifully lit and dressed. Back in the day it might well have got a round of applause when the curtain went up.

I have nothing bad to say about this production at all. Genuinely funny plays in the theatre are not to be sniffed at as they turn up surprisingly rarely. Yes Prime Minister delivers exactly what it promises to a full house who arrive knowing exactly what they expect to see and they are delighted when they get it. I’m just not sure that they needed to see it in the theatre. It doesn’t really add much. It would have been just as much fun as a Sunday night treat on television, and there’s a part of me that regrets the fact that a whole audience went home satisfied without being shown just how unique and particular theatre can be.

The Tempest. Baxter theatre company/RSC at Leeds Grand Theatre. 2-4-09

Production still by Alastair Muir.

I walked in to find myself in the middle of a matinee audience packed out with high school students. The noise was quite something and the atmosphere was excited and unsettled. Not good. I knew enough about the production to realise that there was hope so I wasn’t too worried and the production proved me right. It was clearly told, well spoken, fast paced and visually stunning and it held their attention, drawing cheers from some of them at the end. Good to think that a few of them will have been turned onto theatre for life as I was when I was taken down from school to see Macbeth (Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson) and Richard II (Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson) at a similar age. I can put up with a few bottles of water being dropped and the odd urghh at a stage kiss when I think of that.
I loved Antony Sher’s Prospero. This is a favourite play of mine and I have never seen a Prospero where he was so clearly at the end of a long bitter struggle with himself in exile, only sustained by his love for his daughter Miranda. When he finally has his chance for revenge he has to make a difficult journey during the play and realise that he needs to both forgive his enemies and let go of both his bitterness and also allow his daughter to find happiness with Ferdinand away from him. The pain of this is obvious, but when he has done it he can lay down his powers and accept his mortality calmly and peacefully. As he says his every third thought will now be of death.

Production still by Alastair Muir.

It was a wonderful Caliban from John Kani. Most definitely a dignified and dispossessed man rather than a monster, the insults heaped on him became racist insults and his taking possession of his island again is the final image of the production and a very satisfying one too. Like Prospero he can now be at peace.
Ariel was strong and forceful- nothing airy or flighty about him at all and visually and vocally he was stunning. It was a great image when he was set free and Prospero washed off his painted markings with running water. Ariel is one of my favourite characters in all of Shakespeare and he did it justice.
The set was of thick twisted tree roots and branches reaching up to the top of the stage. Every bit of it was used beautifully and lit perfectly to change the mood and focus of a scene. The puppetry was visually stunning, perfectly executed, and set the play in an African context along with the dance and movement. It was exciting and fun to watch. The spirits/puppeteers also added a great deal during the play making the magic of Prospero and Ariel a constant watchful presence.
A perfect piece of storytelling then, clear as a bell, which swept you away and gave you plenty to wonder at and enjoy.