By Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Venue: Lyttelton Theatre
Date: Saturday 2nd February 2013
A very enjoyable new play by Alan Bennett, poking fun at various establishment targets such as the National Trust, the Church of England (de rigeur these days), eccentric aristocrats and modern technology. The porn industry even took a few hits, but mostly this was a slightly nostalgic look at modern times from the perspective of those who were young adults in the 60s, ripping through some of our modern illusions and preoccupations and giving us plenty of laughs along the way.
The set was fairly elaborate. All the action took place in a large drawing room which at the start looked very dilapidated. A swathe of grey plastic sheeting covered the large central rose in the ceiling, the enormous picture on the back wall was likewise draped with plastic sheeting, and there were dust sheets over a lot of the furniture. I spotted two obvious gaps on the walls where pictures used to hang, and there were various items of furniture and bric-a-brac dotted here and there. I assume the tin bath was a ‘leakage solution’. Two armchairs were positioned near the front of the stage facing a small electric heater, and there were lights, tables, etc. around them. On the far right stood a bureau.
The film crew for the porn shoot didn’t change much of this, but they did bring on a four-poster bed along with all their equipment, having moved the central chairs over to one side. They took their equipment with them when they left, and not long afterwards the restoration work transformed the room to a magnificent version of itself. The sheeting covering the central part of the ceiling was removed (downwards, I think) and a properly restored rose replaced it. The tatty bits of decoration were either removed or covered up, as with the pictures placed over the obvious gaps on the right wall. The ensemble worked their way round the room from left to right, making various scrubbing and polishing actions to indicate the work that was going on, and once they’d finished the room looked splendid, if a lot more formal. One thing puzzled me. The large canvas on the back wall had been removed at the start of this process; all well and good, presumably off for restoration. During and following the changeover there was some dialogue going on, and the area behind that wall suddenly transformed into another room, or so it looked to me at first. Then I thought it might have been a large mirror, and we were seeing a reflection of the room, but the image didn’t quite tie up. Finally the picture was dropped back into position, and I’m still none the wiser as to what was going on with that ‘other room’. [Just checked the play text – the author suggests that during the transformation there may be “a vision of the Adam saloon at the rear of the stage”. But why?]
Apart from that minor point, the story was pretty straightforward. Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) was the elder of two sisters, and living in the family mansion which was now crumbling to bits, located somewhere in the North of England. Her companion Iris (Linda Bassett) was the only other resident, and they spent most of their time huddled in a small part of the large room, trying to keep warm. Dorothy’s sister June (Selina Cadell) was in the Church of England in a middle management position (I have no memory for the ranks of that organisation) and but for the recent vote against giving women too much power, would no doubt have her sights set on the top-job-but-one.
June’s intention was that the house be given to the National Trust, but Dorothy, who actually owned the place, wanted to check out other options. When Bevan, a valuer from one of the big auction houses, suggested selling to a private consortium of the very wealthy who would pay handsomely to keep the house for their exclusive use, she found the idea tempting, but in the meantime there were bills to pay. A ‘quickie’ with the makers of a porn film at least provided hot water and hot meals, as well as a trip down memory lane for Dorothy. The producer/director was someone from her past, when she was a top fashion model, and the chance to wear her 60s haute couture again was irresistible.
At last the decision had to be made, and the Trust won the day. The final scene showed us the visitors wandering around the room while a screen (facing us so we could see the film) showed Dorothy in her bag lady clothes talking about the room and its history. The visitors gradually left and Dorothy had a final encounter with Louise, the makeup lady from the porn film, giving her a farewell gift. As she left the now empty room, Dorothy triggered the recorded announcement “The House is now closed”, and that was that.
The cast were all good, but again we had a triumvirate (or should that be trifeminate?) of excellent performances at the centre of the piece. Frances de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell were magnificent, and although there were good supporting performances, particularly by Peter Egan and Miles Jupp, the women carried the day. It underlines the complaints about the lack of roles for women over thirty, when we have so many talented female actors who can dominate the stage at that age and beyond.
While I enjoyed this play well enough and there were plenty of laughs to be had, I did feel it was a bit thin at times. The targets were easy, even lazy ones, and the slick bon mots occasionally felt recycled. The short opening scene, which set up the idea of the porn film, was entertaining but didn’t flow into the following scene, and this got the play off to an uneven start. I did like the scenes with Bevan though, especially his suggestion that the house might be moved somewhere warmer and more accessible, like Dorset. And I liked the way June changed her attitude towards him once she realised he was involved in the purchase of Winchester Cathedral. They occasionally sang hits from the 60s, such as Downtown, which gave us a very strong sense of time and meant we left the theatre singing to ourselves. Good fun.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me
I think Selina Cadell was something like an Archdeacon. (As you say, the CofE doesn’t have Women Bishops. That’s what the General Synod was getting in a lather about in December). I loved her dismissive remark about belief in God (along the lines of “Oh no, that’s in no way essential nowadays”. If you bought a text you’ll be able to check.
I agree that the play did seem a bit thin. The intermittent rumbling from the mine workings made me wonder about the possibility of a Fall of the House of Stacpoole, which added a certain tension but left me slightly disappointed when it didn’t happen. In the end, I assumed that the powerful Larkin poem in the programme had been inserted as a red herring.
Thanks, Peter. I’ve checked the text now and in response to Dorothy’s “But you believe in God?”, June, the Archdeacon of Huddersfield, says “This is the Church of England, that”s not an issue”. Of course, that may not have been exactly what came out of Selina’s mouth on the day, but it would be close.