In his new play “People,” the hugely popular Alan Bennett clearly has a great deal to get off his chest. His mouthpiece Dorothy (typically deadpan Frances de la Tour) decries the warped values of the National Trust, the flagship U.K. body that runs British stately homes. Likewise the workings of the heritage industry as a whole, not to mention contemporary society that sees the price of everything and the value of nothing. Supporters of Bennett and his thesis may be satisfied, but those in search of drama will be sorely disappointed.
Faced with the florid sales-pitch of National Trust appraiser Ralph Lumsden (Nicholas le Prevost, boldly riding out caricatured writing,) Dorothy announces, “I particularly abhor metaphor.” The line works for the character but feels bogus nevertheless since the play is little but metaphor. Stacpoole, the severely run-down stately home in which the (in)action is set, which Ralph wants to save for the nation, is a metaphor for England and its history which is being fought over by vested interests.
Elderly, free-thinking Dorothy and her companion Iris (Linda Bassett) are living in extreme genteel poverty (and cold) in their ruin of a house. Dorothy and her lesbian, church-minister sister June (pursed-lipped Selina Cadell) are engaged in a “Who will buy?” battle. Thus, at the beginning, an auctioneer (a screamingly upper-class Miles Jupp) is putting estimates on the goods of the house. He then reveals he’s also acting on behalf of an extremely wealthy syndicate which would consider buying the entire house … and moving it to a more desirable part of the country.
June, however, believes in handing the house over to the people of the play’s double-edged title. It should be donated it to the National Trust who will run it in return for the land so as to avoid potentially giant tax bills.
The flatly paced scenes are flecked with nicely harpooned wit from Bassett’s bent-backed, mostly batty Iris, but even her interjections underline the fact that everything is driven solely by dialogue. Subtext is entirely missing. As Dorothy and June argue their positions back and forth with antique sisterly disapproval and dollops of nostalgia, there is nothing beneath for audiences to discern because, with the exception of a couple of heavily signposted pieces of withheld information, everyone means exactly what they say.
Because Dorothy wants to put off the Trust, she allows the house to be used as the location for a porn film. The chaotic shoot is played for comic effect, but too many laughs are stalled by undercasting and overplaying which lend the scene startlingly little authenticity. There is, however, the suggestion of a love plot with the producer turning out to be an old flame of Dorothy’s.
Yet even this sequence goes nowhere and feels added on, as if in recognition that the play needed a boost of energy unsupplied elsewhere. From a dramatist as skilled and experienced as the 78-year-old Bennett, it’s frustrating to see so little action being shown to have consequences.
The other major surprise is that despite the evocative atmosphere of Bob Crowley’s epic period-room set, Nicholas Hytner’s production is uncharacteristically lacking in both rigor and vigor. Even the sequence in which the house is restored to grandeur is unusually strained. In an evening mired in predictability, the only surprise comes with the curtain-call at which Petula Clark’s Sixties hit “Downtown” is played. It echoes the scraps of popular songs the sisters occasionally croon at odd moments, but it feels like an overt attempt to cheer up an effort-filled evening.
Hytner’s first collaboration with Bennett was the latter’s matchless adaptation of the beloved children’s novel “The Wind in the Willows.” A much-revived, runaway hit, it positively shone with a thrillingly controlled undercurrent expressing England’s sense of tradition, its heritage and its values. “People” feels like a talky attempt on its ideas, minus the theatricality.