A new Alan Bennett play is one of the theatrical events of the year, and People, though perhaps relatively minor in a great canon, does not disappoint. Bennett’s name has become a byword for both critical appraisal and public appreciation, and he is one of few playwrights who, just through his name, can cause a rush on the box office. Given that his career has produced bona fide masterpieces and public hits, this is understandable. People doesn’t quite sit in the ranks of his masterpieces, but is still one of the most engaging and clever pieces of drama of 2012. One of his wittiest and with a character destined to be seen as one of Bennett’s best creations, it’s a fantastic evening at the theatre.
In the central role, Frances de la Tour, an effortlessly watchable and brilliant actress, delivers a silently stunning performance as Dorothy, the somewhat tragic heroine. Her life now centres around her dilapidated country house. A former model, whose life has been fraught with misfortunes and sadness, she now lives an unremarkable, sad life with her ‘companion’ Iris (an equally perfect performance by Linda Bassett) and the odd visit from her sister (a much less showy but superb Selina Cadell). When the National Trust visit with the intention of taking over the property, Dorothy has to consider the future, and when an old friend, now making a living by making porn movies visits, Dorothy has another idea about what to do with the house.
And hilarity ensues. As might be expected with Bennett, wit flies through the theatre like light through a window. Certain lines, “Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t necessarily the right thing to do” deserve to be noticed. One scene is a farce and a bloody funny one too. People sits most neatly alongside the likes of his superb miniature The Uncommon Reader (an absolute petite gem for any reader): perfect, passable entertainment, though with much to appreciate beneath it all.
As also ought to be expected with Bennett, profundities are hidden in the humour, though lesser ones than in other plays. Its central mantra – ‘People spoil things’ – is stated then debated throughout the play, alongside issues relating to the National Trust (which either is a clever metaphor for more complex matters or is a relatively flimsy point) and the effects of age, almost unnoticed beneath the sheer enjoyment the characters produce. These are relatively minor Bennett debates and its subtext sometimes unsubtle – the porn stars screw each other, the National trust screw over the house – but Bennett’s stagecraft means that is forgiven. The final scene is unforgettable – the writing, the acting and Nicholas Hytner’s reliably impeccable direction make the last few minutes a quiet wonder of theatre.
Ultimately it’s a softer piece than Bennett’s other masterpieces – compared with the no-holds-barred Kafka’s Dick it’s a feel-good piece – but this is no bad thing. It’s quietly tragic, with Bennett wisely never emphasising the sadness that underpins characters, and quietly clever, with Bennett never overdoing his attacks. It’s loudly comic – about as entertaining as can be despite heartbreak. People is a quiet triumph, but too quiet to be truly triumphant.
Earlier in the year a revival of George III proved that twenty years on that piece still has legs. In 20 years a revival of People ought to prove the same. His last play, The Habit of Art, was an opaque masterpiece, and this doesn’t achieve quite the same power; People’s achievement is a more pleasurable one. Though few would hold it up as a literary landmark, People deserves to be seen as a great work in 2012 and a great pleasure. One of Bennett’s greatest talents has always been to start debates under the noses of people expecting light, witty comedies. People is the greatest example of this. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but a masterful night at the theatre, and one of the most enjoyable things on the stage at the moment.