The dry-acidic wit on Alan Bennett was turned of faith, volunteering and the aristocracy as his recent ‘People’ transferred to the reopened ‘Rep Theatre’ in Birmingham, from the National Theatre in London. This part-farce, part socially observant satire is the latest offering from the writers pen and contained the usual wit and wisdom, the question is – would a man so famous for his short soliloquies manage to hold together the script for a full 2hr play?
The tale is a simple one. It is a take on the decline of a stately home in Yorkshire and follows two sisters as they battle for the future of their family home.
The current inhabitant is a one-time model and now long term recluse who spends her days sleeping in her chair and reading a back catalogue of newspapers to catch up with the ones she never read. She wants a life of glamour and excitement and is not happy about the suggestion of giving the house to the National Trust. Instead, she courts an auctioneer (as his mysterious benefactors) and then later re-meets a former friend from the '60s who is now a specialist film maker.
The other sister is an Archdeacon who flounces in and out of the play and has an air of ‘don’t you know what is good for you’ about her. She wants the house handed over to the beloved 'National Trust' and have done with it. The character, as with that of her superior (the Bishop) is unfortunately very two dimensional. Her acting is hammy and – worst of all – the character doesn’t have room to breath. Whereas the inhabitant has small moments to grow and mature in our eyes, the other sister never has the vulnerable moments and this feeling only increases as the play carries on.
This relationship is played out among a wider cast of characters who play bit-parts that fill out one scene and change before the next. Each scene grows and falls as a small playlit and somehow manage to capture the imagination for the whole 2.2hrs.
What didn’t quiet work
The problem for the whole production was that it somehow didn’t quiet sit comfortably as a story from one of the nations greatest writers. The actors and actresses had some fine turns, but this was undermined by hammy setpieces when the winning supporter renovated the space and by a preference for some of the actors to play up to the space.
This second point seemed even more criminal because the joy of Alan Bennett isn’t just his wit, it’s his focus on the small details. The production was suffocated by its lack of being small. The characters tried to fill the magnificent new stage with their presence, instead of - as rarely did happen - drawing us into their space by speaking and moving in small, quiet ways.
A point brought most dramatically to life with the closing scenes which somehow lifted the play to a better level and demonstrated how small, simple acts and movements can make a real difference and a well placed soliloque deliver a moving and challenging critique of society.
The acting is only as good as the text
However these are niggles. What is more concerning is something that no actor or actress can ever iron out. The inability of Alan Bennett to know how to write for young women and , in some ways, to ensure surrounding characters move beyond stereotype. The bishop was an awful character (with no space to grow) and the young leading female was a poor stereotype of an eastern European woman with accent and misunderstanding played for laughs.
Final conclusion? A solid 3.5 stars. Like the decline of a stately home, the overall fabric of the tale is left wanting but there are flashes of the authors true talent hidden within the walls.