Alan Bennett’s first scene is a parody of Beckett’s shortest drama, Breath, where a human exhalation seeps through a pile of rubbish. But it also encapsulates the play, where the inhabitants of a grand house have to decide how to keep it going. We can’t all have Downton Abbey on tap, like the aristocratic incumbents of Highclere Castle.
At least the film crew making the porn flick get the radiators working, and Dorothy and Iris, a wonderful double act by de la Tour and Linda Bassett, enter into the spirit, Iris recalling the war-time Canadian troops and Dorothy dressing up in her Hardy Amies.
The film studio option for the house, full of treasures (including the rosary of Henry VIII) and the brimming chamber pots of famous visitors (Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, T E Lawrence), is considered alongside the approaches of the National Trust and a consortium of auctioneers led by a posh barrow-boy in a camel hair coat (Miles Jupp) who is making an inventory and who wants to privatise these kind of properties and keep out the riff raff, even move them to cosier climes in Dorset or Wiltshire.
It all sounds far too depressingly true to be funny, though it is funny, and brilliant, and a deeply felt satire on the heritage culture and its agents; Dorothy’s sister, June (a wonderfully beaky and precise Selina Cadell), is an archdeacon in Huddersfield, keen on the Trust and its campaign to appropriate Cilla Black’s childhood home, the last functioning children’s library in the North East, and Winchester Cathedral itself.
Whereas Albion House, the school in Bennett’s first play, Forty Years On, was a revue-style metaphor of a changing England, Dorothy herself defies metaphor, and allegory. There’s a deep sadness at the centre of her life which is aroused by the arrival of the film crew and Peter Egan’s leather-jacketed Mr Theodore, and a secret, too, in Iris’ identity.
Nicholas Hytner’s beautifully weighted (and superbly well cast) production also operates as a brisk antidote to the “living history” pageants in royal palaces and the hushed-tone reverence of stately home guided tours, while pondering the problem of having somehow to share a real life that was led, and still colours the walls, with marauding gangs of tourists en route to the coffee shop.
People combines elements of other Bennett plays, especially Enjoy and The Lady in the Van, but it crackles with its own splendid theatrical energy, and Nicholas le Prevost as Ralph Lumsden, the National Trust man, is a riot of twisting suggestions and craven appreciation.
The public does troop through, but not before the most amazing transformation in Bob Crowley’s design, conducted by a chorus of workmen, film crew and decorators at once, with Dorothy and Iris making do with their memories. There hasn’t been a more enjoyable or richly contemporary and important new play all year.