Bennett’s People suffer from Trust issues
People – National Theatre, until 02 April 2012
Perhaps it was figures published by the Office of National Statistics that suggested the top 10% of households are now 850 times wealthier than the bottom 10%, or possibly it was the leaks to the media that categorically ruled out a Mansion Tax whilst uplifting the majority of welfare benefits by just 1% but, whatever the cause, it was difficult to warm to Alan Bennett’s latest play, People, that contains some questionably judgements on the balance to be made between those who inherited their wealth and can’t afford it, and those can afford it but can’t enjoy it.
Alan Bennett has always existed as a very British radical. Not one to follow in the footsteps of the Angry Young Men of the 1950’s and a world away from Edward Bond’s ferocious anger, one suspects that Bennett has always looked to subvert opinion in unexpected ways – right from the earliest days of Beyond the Fringe.
However watching People, it was hard to not question whether the targets of his ire are particularly deserving of it. There is nothing wrong with it as a play, even if it is a little slighter than some of his earlier work. It is an intelligent comedy that contains Bennett’s traditional meshing of farce with wry humour. There are plenty of excellent one-liners and fully-rounded characters that manage to make what are fairly broad comedy tropes (the Bishop and the porn film could have been a terribly tired cliché) seem reasonably fresh.
No-one goes to a Bennett play expecting the uncomfortable laughs of Martin McDonagh or the breathless extreme farce of Joe Orton, but there is a certain softness that at times makes everything a little too comfortable. The play continues to set up quite uncomfortable philosophical positions about class, inherited wealth and the self-importance of organisations that take it upon themselves to reflect the nation, and then edges away to operate the middle ground.
There are targets scattered throughout the script and whilst Bennett is perfectly capable of doing with a stiletto what others would do with a 12-bore shotgun, there are times when the mercy he shows his subjects makes it difficult to gauge where the audience’s sympathies are supposed to lie.