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People (Tour - Leeds)

Following a successful opening at the National Theatre, Alan Bennett's People comes to The Grand

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Brigit Forsyth as Iris and Sian Phillips as Dorothy
© Ellie Kurrtz

It's an odd feeling for me, a year after the play opened at the National Theatre to universally favourable - even triumphant - reviews, to find myself so out of step with other reviewers, but in truth Royal Northern College of Music Day of Song seems to me far from Alan Bennett at his best, a slight and rather crotchety piece redeemed by very good acting and superb design. So, before I start alienating Mr. Bennett's many fans, let me say that People is at the Grand Theatre this week, a nearly full house enjoyed it immensely on first night, and it is extremely well done.

People has been described as a satire, but its targets seem to me out-of-date, the writer's attitudes depressingly reactionary. An ageing former model, Dorothy Lady Stacpoole, sits in her crumbling stately home with her companion, Iris, and debates what to do before the old place collapses: sell up to auctioneers and developers, or deliver it into the respectable bosom of the National Trust.

Dorothy and Iris act amusingly in the way of old ladies in crumbling stately homes and representatives of the opposing forces make would-be persuasive speeches; Mr. Bennett seems not to approve of current policies of the National Trust, at least not in the rather misrepresented form they take here. Then, out of nowhere, an old friend of Dorothy offers the third way: rent the place out to make porn films. The second half is decidedly more fun, more spectacular, but ramshackle plotting simply removes alternatives, rather than making choices, though there are some nice little surprises along the way.

As an entertainment, People is more successful than as a satire, with plenty of good one-liners and farcical scenes. The porn film seems dragged in purely to add entertainment value, but it does entertain, though rather predictably, and makes a fair point in the morality versus central heating balance sheet!

In Drew Mulligan's revival of Nicholas Hytner's production Sian Phillips, mischievously lively as the grande dame with a past, Brigit Forsyth, drolly comic as the paradoxically downtrodden and outspoken companion, and Selina Cadell as Dorothy's worldly archdeacon of a sister, are all excellent. Paul Moriarty and Michael Thomas manage to animate the parts of the porn producer and the man from the National Trust, though the valuer (Simon Bubb) remains one-dimensional, if two-faced.

Alan Bennett can be grateful to the National Theatre for generous, even prodigal, casting. In these days when plays shed characters in their writing to match the funding available, the touring company numbers 18. Six are members of the porn film company (all very sharply and skilfully defined in a few lines) and five are simply ensemble, their main task to help in a glorious transformation scene: Bob Crowley's design – from elegant dereliction to squeaky clean National Trustdom – is magnificent.

People continues at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 9 November. For further information visit www.leedsgrandtheatre.com