It’s surely one of the odder cultural spats of recent years: Alan Bennett versus the National Trust. The bone of contention is Bennett’s new play People, just opened at the National Theatre, which offers a none-too-flattering portrait of the “other” NT, who’ve voiced their displeasure at the presentation. Audience displeasure may stem from just how lacklustre the evening proves to be, though. For People is a disappointment, a play that badly needs another draft or two. (Or three.) It starts out - intriguingly enough - suggesting Bennett via Beckett, swings - not unenjoyably - into Bennett-by-numbers but ends with the distinct sound of Bennett scraping the bottom of the barrel.
The play concerns the fate of a shabby South Yorkshire stately pile occupied by Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) and her companion Iris (Linda Bassett). The former is being courted by the National Trust (represented by Nicholas Le Prevost’s John Craven-ish eager-beaver) and by a mysterious organisation (glib Miles Jupp), both of whom hope she’ll hand the property and its illustrious contents over to them. But Dorothy - who, as a former model, knows a thing or two about objectification - disdains the idea of people tramping around the house, looking and snapping. Yet she’s more enthusiastic when a film-producer former flame (Peter Egan) enters the picture, and proposes using the house as the set for his latest porn production.
The opening of People is promising. De la Tour and Bassett establish a lovely, winning rapport, there are some genuinely sharp and funny lines, and the play’s investigation of the commodification of Heritage England seems to be generating some steam. (A riff on potties filled with the preserved pee of the great and the good - but not that of Henry James - is truly inspired.) You expect the second half to go deeper, but alas it only gets shallower. The porn filming interlude - complete with disgruntled crew, stereotyped Latvian leading lady and a leading man who (ho, ho) can’t get it up - is a right old Carry On carry-on, and, I think, cringingly unfunny. Isn’t there a comedy rule that if you have to resort to wheeling on a bishop to make something amusing, the gag should have been put out to pasture ages ago? Well, if there is, Bennett breaks it here.
Nicholas Hytner’s production never regains momentum after the embarrassment of this interlude, and Bennett's plotting grows more fanciful as the Significant Speeches get more clumsy and obtrusive. A late transformation of Bob Crowley’s nicely detailed set is clearly meant to impress but it feels too contrived and self-congratulatory a coup. And the viewer is left, ultimately, with the slightly queasy sense of a playwright indulging himself by working through some all-too-familiar pet peeves. As Dorothy’s archdeacon sister, Selina Cadell gets to be the mouthpiece for Bennett’s contention (we've heard it before) that belief in God is “not an issue” in the Church of England. There’s an early swipe at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as “barrow boys” - a line Bennett must like since he already used it in the Talking Heads "Hand of God" episode back in 1998. And, later, Dorothy observes that “there’s nowhere that isn’t visitable. That at least the Holocaust has taught us.” Wasn’t this point made in The History Boys?
Though most of the roles are underwritten, the main reason to see People is the acting, and especially Frances de la Tour’s excellent performance. The actress’s authoritative tones make it a treat to hear her say anything, almost, and introduced in her fur-coat and plim-solls, she moves entertainingly from grime to glam before Dorothy embraces her fate (one in which people, alas, cannot be avoided), creating a wry but warm figure who holds our interest and attention. She’s well partnered by Bassett who executes her character’s comic business with a minimum of wasted motion. But their best efforts can’t disguise the fact that People is very far from Bennett at his best.