A sense of unease when visiting a National Trust house "being required to buy into the role of reverential visitor" prompted Alan Bennett's People, now touring and caught at Plymouth's Theatre Royal.
Unfortunately, it is that exact unease and role expectation which pervaded in a somewhat old-fashioned and creaky piece. Bennett is deservedly a national treasure and, when considering a visit, we have a good idea of what to expect. However, the content can both delight and fail to meet expectations, and do we dare say that Bennett has failed to evoke usual reverence?
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Bennett's tale of Stacpoole House is a mindful vehicle for satirical barbs on topics such as the National Trust and the Church, and the concept that everything has a market value or is worthless.
Multi award-winning Sian Phillips is elegantly commandeering as the spinster Lady Dorothy, whose beloved childhood home is crumbling about her ears – historical gems and all. With no progeny to inherit, a decision needs to be made about its future, to the despair of the moth-eaten fur coat and plimsoll-clad peeress who advocates natural decay.
(Almost) happily ensconced in front of an electric fire with the nice but dim Iris (a plum role well executed by Brigit Forsyth - perhaps best known as Thelma in The Likely Lads) as companion, former It Girl and model Dorothy spends her days dreaming of working plumbing, reading a backlog of newspapers – she's up to 1982 - and with the odd ditty to ring the changes.
Tweedy Archdeacon sister June (a brilliantly brusque Selina Cadell - The Lady Vanishes, Doc Martin, the Amazing Mrs Pritchard) is keen to bequeath the house and contents – including Charles I's bloodstained shirt, Henry VIII's rosary and the rather unique outpourings of rich and famous billiard-playing visitors – to the laudable National Trust.
And that sets the scene for acerbic comment on the dumbing down of culture and the worthiness of a National Trust whose members, according to Bennett, are indistinguishable from the Anglican church, and whose sights are somewhat askew: preservation of Stacpoole House, Cilla Black's childhood home, or the last working children's library? And how on point is that with one of its latest acquisitions being TV's Big Brother house?
And in sharp juxtaposition to the come-all tenet of the NT, there's the mysterious group who buy up property, moves it to wheresoever it fancies and excludes everyone bar the chosen few. And next on its list is Winchester Cathedral.
With bishops and lascivious Latvians, haute coterie plumbers and blasts from the past, the play rumbles farcically onwards with some giggles and much contrivance. The porn movie scene falls somewhat flat - in more ways than one - but the great timings of the grip boy and photographic reflectors is fun, while several themes remain unsatisfactorily unexplored (or did I miss something?), such as the pillar of coal, the unknown fuel for the heating and the unpacked Chippendale bed.
With Paul Moriarty, Simon Bubb, Ieuan Rhys, Michael Thomas and others completing a talented cast, and Bob Crowley's fantastically rotting set, it is a shame this is not the faster-paced, more rollicking piece that we expected.
- Karen Bussell