PEOPLE by Alan Bennett
Banbury Cross Players
Mill Arts Centre, Spiceball Park Road, Banbury, OX16 5QE
25-28 April 2018
Alan Bennett's waspishly humorous farce takes the rise out of the National Trust's recent transformation into a corporate entity that infantilises visitors to its historic properties. It was being bombarded with information from all directions, and being sprung upon by guides in every room at Trust properties that was the original impetus for Bennett to write this 2012 comedy.
The story of People centres on two sisters, Dorothy and June Stacpoole (June Ronson and Hilary Beaton), who live in their ancestral home, Stacpole House, but cannot afford to maintain it. June favours donating it to the National Trust, while Dorothy resists and explores other options. These include selling it to a shady consortium of investors who wish to have it relocated, stone by stone, to Wiltshire, and hiring it out as a film location to an old flame of Dorothy's who shoots porn films.
The contrast between the two couldn't be greater. Dorothy hates the idea of crowds tramping through her lifelong home, and abhors it being turned into a museum by the National Trust for people to interact with. Why, she asks, can't it just fade into obscurity and pass unremarked as 'just another country house', instead of being transformed into an exhibit.
June is an ambitious archdeacon at the local cathedral, with one eye on the bishop's job. In Ralph Lumsden (Dave Candy), the man from the National Trust, she senses a kindred spirit: he motivated by a corporate vision of increased footfall at properties, underpinned by a zero-wage volunteer workforce; she impelled by a managerial approach to church matters that sees no ethical impediment to, or plain inconsistency in, selling off Winchester Cathedral to the same shady consortium she previously condemned for bidding on her and Dorothy's family home.
Dorothy is despairing of the future, but the arrival of Theodore (Dave Smith), her former amour, and his circus of a film crew, breathes new life into her, and the sparkle for life temporarily returns. The filming of the 'adult' movie is pure farce and had the audience laughing. Central to the scene's humour was a sub-plot involving male porn star Colin (Alex Nicholls), who was unable to rise to the occasion and who required 'chemical enhancement' and 'literary' input to meet his professional obligations. His Latvian female co-star Brit (Hana Ayers) merely mocked his predicament. At the moment when the pair are being filmed on the four-poster bed, June enters with the bishop (Terry Gallager) on a tour of the house and proceeds to talk about the room as moans emanate from behind the curtains of the bed. There were some lovely cameos from Jem Turner as ever-so-camp assistant director Nigel, and from Kate Groves as Louise, the production assistant who makes Dorothy feel cared for after so many years of recluse-like life in the house.
June Ronson gave us a sympathetically drawn portrait of Dorothy, a woman backed into a corner, for whom life has lost its zest. At the end, with the National Trust in possession of her home, she puts a brave face on it, but the sadness breaks through, and she reveals that she hates this new order. The change of mood and tone was deftly done.
Dorothy's companion Iris gets plenty of witty lines, which were delivered by Brenda Williams in a deadpan Nora Batty style. A pleasing bit of character acting.
I thought Hilary Beaton gave a terrific interpretation of June, capturing both her frustration at her sister's repeated refusal to see 'sense', and her confident Anglican managerial enthusiasm.
Dave Candy's Ralph Lumsden was a nicely drawn personification of the Trust's descent into management-speak and corporate agendas. Everything was enthused about, no obstacle was insuperable. Particularly good was his reaction to the revelation that Iris was in fact Dorothy's and June's half-sister – the result of a scandalous dalliance by their father with a village girl. Instead of respecting the privacy and discretion that Iris and Dorothy wanted, and without missing a beat, Lumsden drooled at the marketing potential, seeing only a colourful detail in the house's history that must be shared with visitors. This has proved somewhat prophetic given the National Trust's new attitude towards its benefactors' private lives. Candy gave a convincing portrayal of a man so focused on his corporate mission that normal human sensitivites are set aside.
One negative aspect of the evening that does merit mention is the significant number of prompts that were needed by performers, whose identities I will not be so mean as to reveal. A couple of prompts on opening night can be discounted, but this was rather more. Nuff said, I won't labour the point.
Director Ray Atkinson reveals that one of the reasons he came to direct People was because, 'I'm a strong supporter [of the National Trust] and believe in their Forever for Everyone vision'. This had me scratching my head, as the National Trust comes in for plenty of criticism from Alan Bennett, and one's view of the organisation certainly isn't enhanced after seeing the play!
People is not one of Alan Bennett's best plays, but there is still plenty here to please an audience, not least Bennett's trademark wit, and Ray Atkinson and Banbury Cross Players have made a decent attempt at bringing it to the stage.
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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