The ultimate luxury, claims a character in Alan Bennett’s new comedy, is to have a place to yourself. “People spoil things!” He declares.
Well, last night Milton Keynes Theatre was packed to the rafters with people thoroughly enjoying his quite unique brand of humour.
Bennett is the darling of The National Theatre and what better way to help it celebrate its 50th anniversary than with a play that takes a gentle dig at the establishment, the church and, another great institution, The National Trust.
People is now out on the road with a touring company that includes just one of the original cast, Selina Cadell, playing a lesbian archdeacon who is hell bent on getting rid of the family home.
The rather grand country house sits on top of a rumbling pinnacle of coal in Yorkshire and is home to the last of the Stacpoole family, former ‘60s model Dotty and her “companion” Iris. It’s stuffed to the attics with rare and unusual antiques (including a cupboard full of historic celebrity wee preserved in labelled chamber pots) but the roof leaks, the plumbing doesn’t work and the old girls don’t have the cash to patch it up.
But for all its shabby grandeur it’s a family home, much like, though rather larger than, the pit cottages down the road (hidden behind the trees so that they don’t spoil the view).
June, the cleric, has thrashed out a deal with the National Trust to take it off their hands but a desperate Dotty doesn’t want people traipsing through the remnants of her family’s life. The house is her sanctuary and she wants to keep it to herself. In a final act of reckless folly she even allows a porn film to be shot on one of its four-poster beds.
A shady acquisitions group makes a tentative offer but only if they could relocate the house to warmer climes - like Dorset or Wiltshire. “South Yorkshire isn’t a ‘must-have’ location,” says the dodgy valuer come to catalogue the contents.
Pretty much every line is quotable and every scene a madcap delight. The audience are denied the pleasure of seeing the porn stars cavort on the antique four poster by some superb positioning of the remaining cast (though “former actor” Colin - Alexander Warner - does have a couple of discreetly undressed bottomless moments which certainly woke up theatre-goers in the first couple of seconds of the opening.)
Frances De La Tour, a Bennett and NT favourite, played Dotty in London but her place on tour has been taken by Siân Phillips who is simply dazzling. For me she is far more credible in the role than her predecessor.
Blessed with razor-sharp cheekbones and an enviable figure, she cuts a dash when dressed in a classic Hardy Amies’ gown. She even manages to make a tatty fur coat and pyjama bottoms look stylish.
Her Dotty is charmingly eccentric, animated and endearing (and Phillips’ wonderful diction is a delight to listen to). She absolutely steals the show.
Listening to bar chatter in the interval many were astounded that Iris, the decrepit old dear that Dotty shares the odd ‘60s pop song, with was none other than former Likely Lads star Brgit Forsyth (though people forget that the series was on TV 40 years ago and she’s done an awful lot since - also she is very much dressed down for the part).
Together with the ever dependable Selina Cadell they make a wonderful trio of English grand dames.
People really is a laugh-a-second treat that will want you coming back for more. And if you do want afters then it’s playing until Saturday.