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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Lyttelton Theatre  2012 - 2013

Alan Bennett angry is a curious beast. Receiving his wrath is a bit like being chastised by the kindliest teacher in the school, the one who manages to convince you that this hurts him more than it does you. 

Fortunately you are not the direct target of Bennett's anger in his new play, which is aimed at the heritage industry that sustains a myth of an Olde England that never was and creates Disneyfied versions of it to sooth those searching for nostalgia – less the foreign tourists than the sentimental British. 

In short, the National Trust. (Note to non-Brits: the National Trust is the agency that accepts gifts to the nation of stately homes and the like that the owners can't afford to keep up, does them up in 'authentic' period style, and runs them as tourist attractions.) 

Lady Dorothy Stacpoole is the owner of such a dump, which her archdeacon sister wants her to give to the nation, but the idea of the house being redesigned in the National Trust's image of what it should look like and of all those people traipsing through her family home is just too distasteful. 

In the course of the play she'll consider other alternatives – selling off some of the family heirlooms, selling the whole house to a shady private party, even renting it out as a set for porn movies – and in the process Bennett will poke genteel fun at all these and others. 

People offers a very pleasant couple of hours, and I use that tame adjective deliberately. Alan Bennett is a brand name promising safe, decorous light humour and light drama, and his fans will find nothing here to disappoint them – it might even be possible to sit through the entire play and not realise that a satirical point is being made. (Even the porn movie sequence has nothing to shock your maiden aunt.) 

People also offers the pleasure of watching some skilled comic actors coasting with seeming effortlessness through roles that show them off to full advantage. 

Frances de la Tour is a wryly acerbic Dorothy when wrapped up in several layers of mink because the heating has broken down and a delightfully rejuvenated one when the filmmakers (including an old beau) brighten things up for a while. 

Selina Cadell is comfortably villainous as the churchly sister and Linda Bassett droll as the companion who is not always quite as dotty as she seems. 

Miles Jupp makes an auctioneer's evaluator seem the slimiest conman around until Nicholas le Prevost shows that the National Trust man is even slimier, and Peter Egan is essence of decayed roué as the pornographer-in-chief. 

Nicholas Hytner directs with a delicate hand that doesn't completely disguise the fact that Bennett's satire is about as dangerous as a de-clawed pussycat and that without an angry edge the play meanders a bit aimlessly.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  People - National Theatre 2012

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