Alan Bennett's popularity among the theatre-going public is beyond doubt. It might not be a stretch to describe him as the nation's favourite living author. So, a new play by him is heralded with much anticipation and enormous queues of people desperate to buy tickets. And Mr Bennett only produces a new play every four years or so – in this case, the interval has been a little shorter at just three years since 'The Habit of Art' was at the National in 2009. The question is whether his new offering has been worth the wait.
'People' is set in South Yorkshire. That immediately appeals to me since I am, like Alan Bennett, a Yorkshireman, though Mr Bennett's place of birth in Leeds is about 13 miles from mine in Huddersfield. It is hardly surprising that this is the setting since the author still has strong ties with his native county. But the location for the play is not the derelict mills, or the dingy backstreets of Leeds, but a crumbling stately home.
Surrounded by huge fading paintings, rotting curtains, waterlogged cellars and enormous, freezing rooms, the Stacpoole family have been in residence since 1465 or maybe 1456, they don't seem quite sure. Anyway, the family fortunes have faded almost as much as the house itself, and they no longer have the means to maintain it. So they are considering their options about how their dilapidated pile can be preserved. Several potential deals to sell the house to a cookery school and the like have fallen through. Now, there are only two offers on the table. First, is to gift the house to the nation in the guise of the National Trust, and another is to sell to a shadowy group of wealthy individuals who are in the process of buying-up all manner of properties, including cathedrals!
Frances de la Tour – a regular member of Alan Bennett's ensembles – is Dorothy Stacpoole, the head of the family and the one who has to make the final decision about the house's destiny. She lives with her 'companion', Iris, played by Linda Bassett. And June (Selina Cadell) is the archdeacon of Huddersfield who is keen to get the house under the protective wing of the National Trust. Dorothy is not so keen to let the Trust take over, because she thinks it will allow floods of people in to rampage over the house and disturb her privacy. A further option presents itself when a producer of porn films fetches up. Dorothy recognises the producer from her days as a model and readily agrees to 'Reach for the Thigh' being shot on the family's ancient bed, providing something of a risqué detour.
'People' is more of a farce than anything else, but it is not riotously funny. I sensed from the start that the first-night audience wanted to love this play, and, more importantly, wanted to laugh. So, even the initial short scene where a porn actor appears in a jock strap raised the expected chuckles. But it is not consistently funny, even if there are occasional classic Bennett lines. And especially during the second half, the audience seemed rather muted, and by the end I was beginning to even find it a little laborious. The porn shoot really falls rather flat, and even the title of it is lame (though perhaps intentionally so). On the other hand, the satirical element, directed at the National Trust, does work well. Mr Bennett derides the Trust's approach to its members (or 'self-selecting individuals', as he calls them) as almost treating them like sheep who have to be force-fed intimate and rather unsavoury details about the houses they visit.
Interestingly, director Nicholas Hytner apparently remarked, when he first read the play, that it was unlike anything else Mr Bennett has done before. And I found myself thinking along similar lines. Even if his previous works have ranged over a multitude of diverse subjects, 'People' seems to veer from the comfort of the familiar Bennett territory we have come to relish, at least in part because the situations feel rather forced and contrived. On the whole, I found my high expectations a little dashed.
"Mordantly funny new play...while the play has one or two awkward contrivances, it confirms Bennett's peculiar gift for blending the satiric and the elegiac. "
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Bennett’s writing brims with ideas — perhaps too many. Several of the characters are underdeveloped, and I’m not absolutely convinced that he has decided what this play’s main concern is. Yet it has bite..."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"People has a good theme but the production doesn’t half plod in places."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"People is maybe not the most even-handed of plays but it demonstrates that, in his 78th year, Alan Bennett's acute wit and talent for challenging cosy English complacencies are in a very healthy state of preservation."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"At 78, Alan Bennett has lost little of his mischievous wit and sense of the ridiculous. His eagerly awaited new comedy, People, may not be out of the top drawer of his work, lacking the emotional depth and sly subtlety of his best writing, but it is entertaining, funny and touching...This may not be Bennett at the very top of his game, but it is still a richly enjoyable evening. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph