People

National Theatre, Lyttelton, Southbank Monday May 13 2013 19:45

Alan Bennett's hotly anticipated new comedy isn't quite the scabrous assault on the National Trust that speculation suggested. The Trust, represented by waggly-moustached old smoothie Lumsden (Nicholas le Prevost), hardly comes across well.

But Lumsden isn't the only one eyeing-up the dilapidated fifteenth century Yorkshire home of jaded old recluse Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour). Bevan (Miles Jupp), the deliciously Mephistophelean agent of The Concern, a cabal of shady one percenters, wants to physically move the house to Wiltshire. And a certain Mr Theodore (Peter Egan) offers Dorothy £5,000 to film a porno inside it.

'People' represents Bennett in loopier mood than we've seen for a long while. This mischievous, wilfully provocative play sees Dorothy and her loyal companion Iris (the brilliant Linda Bassett) assailed by a sort of cartoonish New World Order. But it does have a simple plea at its heart: that things and people be allowed to decay when it's their time, not made to live on in an unnaturally perky, access all areas afterlife.

Seventy-eight years old and as much a national treasure as any musty Tudor pile, it's a pleasant irony that Bennett remains willing to share himself with us. His play is most persuasive at its most personal, and De la Tour gives a splendid performance as elegant, weary Dorothy. She retreated to the family home after youthful heartbreak and now wants nothing out of life beyond privacy and functional central heating. The Trust and The Concern want to turn her into a sad exhibit in her own home; at least the porn people fix the boiler.

Bennett lands several bodyblows on the heritage industry, and his vision of the house reborn as a Trust property is exquisitely grotesque. But 'People' is too jolly to make you feel anything more than mildly uncomfortable next time you make a bank holiday pilgrimage to some stately home.

As with his 2009 play for the National Theatre, 'The Habit of Art', 'People' is comparatively minor Bennett. But it's funnier and more focused, and deserves a longer life. And as ever with Bennett at the National, you get a deftly amusing, economical production from Nicholas Hytner, a sumptuous set (courtesy of Bob Crowley) and a cast to die for.

Venue name: National Theatre, Lyttelton
Contact:
Address: South Bank
London
SE1 9PX
Transport: Tube: Waterloo
Price: £12-£30. In rep. Runs 2hr 20min.