by Alan Bennett
National Theatre on Tour
Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes
31st October 2013 matinee
Directed by Nicholas Hyntner
With Sian Phillips, Brigit Forsyth and Paul Moriaty.
When we came out of the Grandage Season, “Peter & Alice” we said, “Well, at least we’ll never see another play that bad this year.” Wrong, even though we carefully avoided the other Alan, Alan Ayckborne. The original National Theatre production of “People” garnered four stars from every national newspaper reviewer.
The critical consensus id four stars, so I’m out on a limb!
I wouldn’t give the touring production two stars, and I think one far too generous. This is an abysmal play in a hammy production. Heads and shoulders the worst thing we have seen this year.
The Milton Keynes Theatre is huge, and has a stage that could take the ten hour Tantalus, or Sean Bean’s Macbeth, both of which we saw more than a decade ago. We came back for David Warner and the touring set was dwarfed on this stage, stuck in the middle with large gaps either side. On our previous three visits, we were impressed by the restaurants surrounding the theatre. A vibrant, lively area. In 2013, several are shut. It’s run down and seedy. The theatre has peeling wood cladding. It looks decayed.
Which brings us to Alan Bennett. This play is run down and seedy, written by a decaying author who has truly lost the plot. We loved The History Boys. We have several Alan Bennett CDs. We are fans, but sadly, this play is crap.
The actors are not good. Brigit Forsyth as the elderly stepsister / servant was doing TV acting, so inaudible in the balcony, not helped by whispered geriatric queries, “What did she say?’ all around us. In contrast, the rest of the cast were old-style acting, hooting loud for England. Paul Moriaty as Theodore would have been heard a mile down the road, though Sian Phillips probably faded after no more than half a mile. Play it large! someone must have said. AmDram night at the National Theatre.
Add static blocking from the director, though whether Nicholas Hynter followed on into the touring version is in doubt. I hate to single out a cast member for ham, but fortunately I don’t have to, they all were.
I always forgive actors. The true fault is that it’s a dreadful play, and Alan Bennett has passed his sell-by date. It demands ham acting, so blame the writer. Act One is extremely boring, with three people trying to explain to an ageing aristocratic Dottie (Lady Stackpoole) why she should donate her stately home to the National Trust or private Gulf-Oil enterprise. It’s wordy and dull. We very nearly quit in the interval, and subsequently wished we had. We only stayed for you, dear reader.
Act Two sees the temporary resolution of Lady Dottie’s financial problems by allowing her old beau Theo to make a porn film in the stately home. There’s twenty minutes with lots of laughs from the audience as they try, but honestly, say “fuck” and “I can’t get a hard on” to an audience in their 70s and 80s and you will get laughter. Fuck is funny. Erectile dysfunction in a porn star is funny. Maybe octogenarians think about erectile dysfunction a lot. A Balkan female porn actress with a Russian accent is as funny as all foreigners should be, especially sexy Eastern European females. And the theatre was full, a lot were in coach parties, and around us they were crying with laughter during the porn film bit (though not elsewhere). So like the other Alan, putting on the play is financial good sense.
The porn film sequence does at least involve lots of actors and lots of movement. You can’t really go wrong with a very funny situation, a lot of the humour coming from how by careful positioning of film crew and reflectors, you can’t actually see anything. And lots of clichés. The porn bit didn’t use a single “funny” line I had not heard before. Cliché and well-worn jokes piled on each other.
Then just as I was beginning to forgive Bennett that mind-bendingly tedious Act One, it reverts to the dull National Trust v Private Enterprise plot with some silly stuff (“absurd” would be a serious word too far for it) about selling Winchester Cathedral to the sheikhs. And by the way, the “hugely valuable cat bowl” subplot is a straight lift from a Roald Dahl short story which was made into a short film. It finishes with guff trying to make the decaying stately home a metaphor for “England.” The dialogue writing, from a master of dialogue like Bennett, is pathetic. We are supposed to find it hilarious that Dottie, in 2012, thinks someone using a phone as a dictaphone is talking to themself. Dictaphones were around in the 1960s, even if not incorporated in phones. At the end an “Aah!” resolution is Dottie using a remote control to switch off lights. Have you seen a TV of the last twenty years that you can do much to without a remote? The other “hilarious” theme is Dottie picking up “modern idioms” like “Bring it on.” It was written for an elderly audience, patronizes them, and is out of date for the elderly of 2013 … don’t forget that these octogenarians were thirty year olds in 1963, and only fifty when the remote appeared for TVs thirty years ago.
The plot has nothing happening but mind-numbingly weak wordiness in Act One, a very promising start to Act Two, but a dull resolution. The cast come down in quality to match the fourth-rate play. Hey, it’s a job. The play was as moldy as the woodwork outside the theatre. Time to retire, Mr Bennett.
The play ends with the stately home cleaned up by the National Trust and open to gazing day trippers. The last line of the play is a recording “This house is now closed.” Rarely has it been so welcome in a play. We demonstrated our insincerity by clapping with fixed grins as the unnecessarily large cast took their bows. So what about those four star reviews? Maybe the original National production was sharper, maybe the main actors were better. The play remains the same. Generosity based on Mr Bennett’s stature and past record?