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.
Many reviews have focussed on the sustained fire targeted at the National Trust, supposedly one of the sacred cows of his audience, and it is true that this is where Bennett’s acerbic tongue is most frequently, and often hilariously, directed. Nicholas le Provost expertly captures the Trust’s representative; enthused and evangelised by a sense of history that only comes from not having experienced it first-hand. Spectacularly undaunted by the withering criticisms of Frances de La Tour’s Lady Dorothy Stacpoole, he is able to turn an argument on the head of the pin and reels out the Blairite New Labourism’s of ‘journey’, ‘narrative’ and ‘inclusion’ as if its second nature.
The flexibility of the National Trust to change its view to fit the situation clearly irks Bennett. It is clear that he cannot stand their position as self-appointed arbiters of the nation’s history; an assumed moral duty to present England to itself. However the question that remains uncomfortably unanswered at the end of the play is what should replace them if they are the buyer of last resort. Dorothy’s final act of subversion at the end of the play – handing over rosary beads used by Henry VIII as a necklace with no comment on their history – is her right as an individual but the morality of such an act of an individual in wider society is clearly questionable.
This underlines the fundamental problem of the play and perhaps reveals Bennett’s position as an old-fashioned conservative. There is very little criticism directly levelled at those who let the houses fall to wrack and ruin, to those who paid no heed to their treasures over the decades, can no longer afford to maintain them but don’t see why the public should enjoy them, those who systematically lived off the work of others for generations.
This argument is broached by Dorothy’s sister but her credibility is undermined almost immediately by showing her to be in cahoots with a rather shadowy cabal of post-Thatcherite businessmen interested in buying Winchester cathedral and keeping the public out. In a play that cross-cuts a number of generational and social divides, it is the blue-blooded aristocracy who stuck to their guns and the salt-of-the-earth pornographers who come out most favourably.
Overall People is an enjoyable play if you take it at a surface level and don’t read too much into it – a position perhaps contrary to the one that Bennett intends – and the performances are as good as you would hope from a National Production. The surprise package of the evening is Miles Jupp as the antiques dealer – his features set him naturally within this world but like so much of the younger generations coming out of the traditionally Tory shires, it is clear that he has also inherited much of the ruthless tactics of the 1980’s.
Nicholas Hytner’s production cracks along at a good pace – although there is a pre-scene at the start of the play that seems to have very little value – and Bob Crowley’s set design contains a number of little treasures to enjoy but despite all of this it feels this will not enjoy the sustained critical acclaim that was enjoyed by Bennett’s last two venture – The History Boys and The Habit of Art.