A play taken for granted

Two's company, National Trust's a crowd: The wonderful duo of Brigit Forsyth as Iris and Siân Phillips as Dorothy. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

People

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

****

THEATRE can generate many emotions but every so often it throws up a production like People, where it is just a delight to be there.

And the people in the audience at the official opening of the newly refurbished and, behind the scenes, rebuilt Rep delighted in every moment.

For three-quarters of Alan Bennett’s latest play this was a master at work - more of the final quarter later - with a cast to match.

It is witty, at times gloriously funny, has a few rapier like prods at the Establishment and sees one national institution with initials NT, The National Theatre taking a less than kindly view of another, The National Trust.

There are a few inconsistencies but they can be forgiven amid some glorious acting and writing.

Siân Phillips is 80, which I mention merely because you would never believe it, and proves emphatically that age is merely a number as she dominates the stage as the ancient peer and ex-model Dorothy Stacpoole who is shivering her life away with her companion Iris, played beautifully by Brigit Forsyth, in the family’s crumbling, decaying, stately home set among the rolling coalfields of South Yorkshire.

Iris, in her Yorkshire accent, not only has some of the best lines, one liners and asides to savour, but a dark secret to be revealed in the closing scenes. The pair have a habit of breaking into songs from the 60s, perhaps a memory of happier, more prosperous times when the world was a different place.

Dorothy can’t afford to restore or even repair and her sister June, Archdeacon of Huddersfield, played with bossy efficiency by Selina Cadell wants to donate, or in tis case, lumber the house, contents and land to The National Trust to preserve it for the nation . . . and avoid crippling death duties if Dorothy who was bequeathed the pile by her father, was to pop her Yorkshire clogs first.

Dorothy hates the idea of all those people traipsing around in ”pretend England” as she sees the National Trust and would rather keep things as they are but has brought in an auctioneer, Mr Bevan, played in pigeon management speak by Simon Bubb, who is looking to sell off the attic – or at least those items Dorothy will allow him to sell and might be able to make an offer – an unlikely scenario methinks - for the house, which would then be moved to Wiltshire, or Dorset . . . “somewhere warm”.

Prim, proper and bossy to boot, June Stacpoole played by the marvellous Selina Cadell

Then another alternative to the National Trust pops up – or at least it does after a dose of magazines and a magic pill – when old flame Teddy, played by Paul Moriarty appears, with the offer of £5,000 to shoot a film of an adult and largely horizontal nature on the premises, an offer grasped with both hands, so to speak.

Perhaps introducing a licentious Bishop (Robin Bowerman) to appear while filming is taking place is a little obvious and more in Ben Travers territory than Bennett and although it garnered laughs it was rather gilding an already gloriously funny lily in the filming scene.

Here we had Bruce (Ieuan Rhys) a porn star who used to be an actor who had the problem that his manhood had either given up completely on acting or at the very least seemed to have forgotten its lines.

Then there was his, and I suppose also its, co-star in this type of film, Lithuanian lovely Brit (Ellie Burrow) who used to be a Sunday School teacher.

There was Cameraman Les (Adrian McLoughlin) who once worked with David Lean while the soundman was gay Welshman, perhaps the only Gay in his village, Colin, an expert on plumbing and haut couture while Nigel (Danny Burns) rushed around keeping Iris, or Granny as he called her, out of the way and Endy McKay as Louise looked after Iris and Dorothy, spoiling them and dressing Dorothy in her finest gowns from her heyday as a model.

Where it all starts to unravel a little is in the home stretch, the final quarter, when Bennett inserts political barbs with all the subtlety of a blacksmith churning out horseshoes on his anvil.

 There are digs at both the Anglican church and The National Trust, the latter an organisation, with its sacrement of “coffee and walnut cake” that could rival the former we are told where it not for the fact that the membership of both was largely the same.

Bennett, through Bevan, has a dig at the Trust for its business plan of running on thousands of volunteers paid with “a cup of tea and a piece of flapjack” creating a minute wage bill for such a large organisation.

Then we have Ralph Lumsden in his plum trousers – why do men of a certain age drift into plum trousers, is it something to do with failing eyesight? – another spouting trendy management speak nonsense, who does not give us a flattering portrait of the trust happily turning to subterfuge to create reality heritage and tell it like it is, or at least might have been, which reaches its pinnacle with the collection of, should we say, personalised chamber pots.

The real gratuitous politics comes in though when Archdeacon June is asked by Dorothy when we stopped just accepting things, and she tells her the time when England really changed, when people stopped taking things for granted, was in the 1980s, a time when she tells us: “"Everything had a price. If it didn't have a price, it didn't have a value."

Everything, even heritage, became a commodity. The scene despairing at the changes wrought by Thatcherism though seemed to be clumsily bolted on, pushed in the drawer because it had to go somewhere, missing the scalpel like precision to first dissect and then expose the injustice and incongruity we expect of Bennett with his undoubted talent.

Fashion shoot tea boy turned middle aged porn baron(ish) Theodore played with suitable down market charm by Paul Moriarty

It seemed even less likely to be coming from the mouth of June, a figure woven deeply into the establishment like the pattern on a Jacquard loom or perhaps that was the point; if even such a pillar of the Church of England, the Conservative party at prayer, could see the faults and changes, divisions and inequality Thatcherism spawned upon us then it should by now be obvious to all – a universal truth. You might fault the execution but not the logic.

Nicholas Hytner was the original director of this National Theatre production, with Drew Mulligan the revival director for this production and they have managed to create a gentle pace to compliment the slowly crumbling house and its inhabitants although the production does seem to flag a little and pause for breath a couple of times in the closing scenes.

The setting from Bob Crowley is wonderful, a run down grand room in a no longer stately home, dust sheets and dust, an ancient electric fire, piled up furniture and a cat’s bowl in the middle.

The transformation in the closing scene to its former glory is a revelation aided by some clever lighting from James Farncombe.

It is a play which is not faultless in construction although the fine cast can hardly be held to account for that but perhaps that is because we have set higher standards for Bennett than for lesser writers. That being said he has produced a gentle comedy which is packed with laughs and a wonderful sense of the ridiculous – back to the chamberpots again – some clever and witty dialogue and a thoroughly entertaining and delightful evening - and a welcome return to the Rep's newly  re-opened home. To 21-09-13.

Roger Clarke

And from those people up the other end . . .

**** 

IF Alan Bennett had written his brilliant new play specifically to mark the re-opening of the refurbished Rep theatre it couldn’t have been a more fitting project.

Many in the packed audience on media night, including VIPs, had taken the opportunity to take a look at the remarkable multi-million pound new Birmingham Library – linked to the theatre – and seen people enjoying its facilities on all levels.

There were people combing the rows of book shelves, people in the computer rooms, people in the restaurant and people on the roof-top gardens.

Maybe that’s what Dorothy Stacpoole fears in the play when she discusses the options available to her in selling her family’s crumbling South Yorkshire mansion, particularly if it goes to the National Trust. She doesn’t fancy large numbers of people traipsing through the stately pile.

Veteran actress Sian Phillips, now 80, plays former model Dorothy, and the action opens with her wrapped in an old fur coat, a lookalike for Grizabella in Cats, chatting to her companion, Iris, in a large untidy room, heated by an old electric fire and lit by one bulb.

Sian is superb in the role, ably supported by Brigit Forsyth as Iris, and there are many humorous exchanges between the pair and the would-be buyers before a dodgy film crew arrive to help the renovation funds by shooting a movie . . . which turns out to be a porn film.

It’s cheeky but cleverly done as a young couple get their kit off in a rocking four-poster bed while efforts are made to keep the old dears out of the way. Then a Bishop turns up for a chat with Dorothy’s archdeacon sister, June (Selina Cadell) and stumbles on the rude shoot.

The sexual content of the play is not severe enough to offend, and many people will find it extremely funny in this National Theatre production which is a double premiere – opening the newly refurbished theatre and launching the NT’s tour following a sell-out run in London.

And while on the subject of refurbishment, the way the rotting old mansion is transformed before your eyes to reflect its former glory, near the end of the play, is wonderfully achieved.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, People runs to 21-09-13 

Paul Marston

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