If life were a song lyric, then it would be a given that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. But in the cheerfully misanthropic world of Alan Bennett's new play, People, which opened in London this past November to critical acclaim, most people are a bloody bore. One of the show's acronyms, PST, stands for the elitist reminder that People Spoil Things. Fortunately, they did not spoil this rousing production, which is on view at the Tivoli Theatre this Saturday and next as part of the superb National Theatre Live series.
Meet Dorothy Stacpoole, a decaying old dowager who lives in a disintegrating Downton Abbey-type 15th-century manse in the British countryside. Now Dorothy sits in front of a space heater, bundled up in a moth-eaten fur coat. "I long to be warm at night," she complains. She gazes about the splendid desolation of her once-stately home and bemoans, "All this, and we're poor."
The cash-strapped Dorothy might be cloned from the daffy duchess portrayed by Margaret Rutherford in Terence Rattigan's 1963 movie melodrama The V.I.P.s. In that slick flick, Maggie's estate was saved when a lugubrious movie director (Orson Welles) rented the home for a location shoot of Schiller's Mary Stuart. The '60s may have been a good decade for splashy movies and tuneful pop music (in some of People's most endearing moments, Dorothy and her lady-in-waiting cut loose in spirited renditions of Petula Clark's "Downtown" and the Beatles' "Do You Want to Know a Secret"), but Alan Bennett is not interested in the simplistic happy endings of the 1960s. For Bennett, England changed for the irrevocable worse after the Thatcher '80s, a sea-change decade during which "all value became financial." If Dorothy is to die in this same home where she was born, her options are limited. She can donate the estate to Great Britain's National Trust, which will restore and preserve it (and allow paying strangers to tour the grounds), or she can sell the place to a secret consortium that seeks to physically move the house to a more choice location.
In a sly nod to The V.I.P.s, a porn-production company wants to make a movie at Dorothy's home. Bennett's sad inside joke is that Mary Stuart has been supplanted by pornography. As he approaches age 80, Bennett (The Madness of King George, The History Boys) is not yet prepared to go gentle into that good night. People is his howl at a diminishing world whose concerns have shriveled from lofty tragedy to crass banality. But despite his despair, Bennett can take delight in his own verbal dexterity. A tour of the house is "a preliminary perambulation." The shifts in the coal deposits beneath the manse are "subterranean grumblings." The sheer erudition of People is a joy to the ear. When the show turns to burlesque, as it does in Act Two after the (porn) players have arrived, the evening's frisky irreverence recalls early Bennett, back in the frolicsome '60s when he was one-fourth of the irreverent Beyond the Fringe revue with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller.
Because many of Bennett's sharpest barbs prick the National Trust, it might sound as if People is too British for American consumption. But thanks to the deliciously vibrant performance by Frances de la Tour as Dorothy, the play assumes a character-driven universality in which everyone can take glee. Regardless of whether Dorothy is cavorting with her Greek chorus of a companion (Linda Bassett) or clashing with her archdeacon lesbian sister (Selina Cadell) about the future of their home, de la Tour is a droll force to be savored.
The entire spiffy production is under the nuanced supervision of Nicholas Hytner, one of the most creative directors working today. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more engaging way to spend two and a half hours on a Saturday morning. National Theatre Live has scored again.