By Alan Bennett
National Theatre, Lyttelton, London SE1 9PX, until April 2, 2013
A new play by Alan Bennett is a major event and here he doesn’t disappoint with a witty and lively skewering of the heritage industry. It is funnier and has more interesting things to say than The History Boys, which of course conquered Broadway. He says (in an insightful programme note) that the play “started with an itch… a sense of unease when going round a National Trust house and being required to buy into the role of the reverential visitor”.
Lady Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour, dry as a martini) lives in freezing squalor with her companion, the crumbling Iris (the great Linda Bassett) in a decaying Yorkshire stately home. Bob Crowley’s majestic set is a highlight, particularly when we observe the glittering renovation. Clad in oddly assorted layers topped off with old furs, the women resemble Jackie Kennedy’s neglected cousins from Grey Gardens. The story is similar – bohemian aristos who can’t keep up the maintenance on the stately mansion but neither could they survive the death duties.
In England, of course, the answer is to offer it to the National Trust, and this fits with the politics of younger sister June, who feels the family needs to “put something back”. She’s a gruff, businesslike, lesbian Archdeacon, who despairs of her older sister, and Bennett pokes gentle fun at both the Church of England and the National Trust and their similarly devoted legions.
Lady Stacpoole, however, has been secretly considering other options, including from slippery auctioneer Bevan (Miles Jupp), whose angle is that he represents a shadowy consortium who would love to buy the house to keep the rabble out, but would prefer to move it to Dorset “where it’s warmer”. This is the dilemma of the play: whose “people” is the house for, exactly. Nicholas Le Prevost, in a perfectly pitched performance, wonderfully inhabits the contradictions in the National Trust’s position. His devotion to the past sits happily side by side with a desire to make a quick buck and, if needs be, to pruriently exploit any family scandals to make the place a more viable visitor attraction.
Bennett’s play is no reactionary whine about modernity, however, and nor does he ignore how these families accumulated their great wealth in the first place, but he finds a boyish delight in Dorothy’s later decision to hire the house to an old flame (Peter Egan in sparkling form) as a location for a porn film. The comic potential is quite obvious here, and you know that as soon as they shout ‘Action’, in will walk the Archdeacon accompanied by the local Bishop, who believes their excuse that it’s a photo shoot for a Women’s Institute calendar.
The nub of the play is Dorothy’s complaint about why things can’t be allowed to decay and that taking stuff for granted is a sign of civilisation, whereas today everything is subject to the values of the market. “This is not Allegory House”, she proclaims, refusing to see it as a metaphor for England.
The play is never serious but has serious things to say, and that is Bennett’s triumph. This vision of the stunted lives of a decaying upper class trapped in these grounds and being marketed to gawpers, is a wonderful counterpoint to Downton Abbey mania. “I have ended up like the house, pretending to be myself” is Dorothy’s poignant conclusion.
People will be broadcast live to 250 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on 21 March 2013. www.ntlive.com