The second half of the National Trust’s Middle England-cheering name does not, it would seem, ring true to Alan Bennett.
The History Boys writer’s latest London show, always eagerly anticipated, takes great relish in poking fun at the institution that, on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage at least, manipulates the story of its properties to expose their most marketable side, however closely or not this might be related to the truth.
Of course, being Bennett, there’s far more going on here than a dig at the property preservers. People is a tale of clinging onto the past, of reinventing England to suit your own designs, of hiding the truth and making a new one.
At its centre is Frances De La Tour’s Dorothy, a former model and owner of Stacpoole House, the property that, lacking any care and attention, has fallen into disrepair. Balanced – both really and metaphorically – on a column of Yorkshire coal, something must be done before the old house becomes uninhabitable. Dorothy would sell it privately to keep out hoards of intruders, sister June would gift it to the Trust.
It’s hard not to be charmed by De La Tour’s central performance, the third time in a decade that she’s appeared in one of Bennett’s new plays. Her Dorothy is full of both melancholy and vigour, reclusive but sociable, modern, unflappable, but stuck in a past where TV doesn’t exist and her daily reading includes newspapers from the 80s. More importantly, she makes you root for her, for her life to be everything it could be and everything it was.
Linda Bassett as the ever-present companion, confidant, dance partner and sidekick is more dotty than Dorothy – her foot teetering near her mouth at every moment – but fiercely loyal like an old family hound that would happily throw itself into a fight despite the fact all its teeth had fallen out and it only had one eye.
Selina Cadell completes the central trio as an austere, compassionless archdeacon sister, not a figure of hate, but unlikeable when compared with the eccentric duo.
Despite the threesome standing out, the whole cast provides performances more polished than a retro-fitted chandelier. Nicholas Le Prevost is full of dusty zeal as the National Trust broker, Peter Egan exudes cool charm as an old friend who happens to direct movies of an adult nature – did I mention the four-poster bed rattling moments of how’s your father? – and Miles Jupp whiffs of cash and corruption as a sleazy auctioneer with a handy sideline in procuring property for shady cartels.
Though the first half takes its time to get going, lingering like a Trust visitor at an intriguing piece of porcelain, the second whips along, complete with transformations and a modesty-saving reflector of decency, as Dorothy’s fate is revealed.
While the performances and Bob Crowley’s lavish stately home set catch the eye, it is Bennett’s witty, pithy and poignant lines that will, like many a trust property, be preserved for prosperity in the mind.