A new Alan Bennett play inspires much anticipation and Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre is one of a select number of theatres across the country to host People, his latest offering.
A brief opening scene with a porn actor in a jockstrap offers a cheeky early laugh before settling in for the more understated scene-setting and gentle humour.
So the audience finds themselves witnessing a national institution poking fun at another national institution as Bennett takes on the might of the National Trust with observations about the readiness of the organisation to exploit any historic detail of a new acquisition, however salacious or disreputable.
Stacpoole House owner Dorothy (Sian Phillips), who lives amid the dust and chill of her decaying stately home with companion Iris (Brigit Forsyth), is trying to find another way of preserving her house and her privacy rather than hand over the property to the Trust as bossy archdeacon younger sister June (Selina Cadell) hopes.
Faced with a choice between this and an offer from a shady consortium, which might decide to move the building from South Yorkshire to Wiltshire, Dorothy and Iris live among the crumbling walls, rotting fabric, leaking roof and hoarded belongings in search of another option.
An encounter with Theodore (Paul Moriarty), a director and former flame from her modelling days, offers the unshockable Dorothy the alternative she’s been looking for and she agrees to allow the filming of adult movie Reach For The Thigh to take place on an ancient and dusty four-poster.
The arrival of the film crew offers Dorothy and Iris hope as they fix the heating and breathe life back into the neglected home, and Dorothy is even coaxed out of her moth-eaten fur coat and pyjamas and back into the designer clothes of her former career, with Phillips gracefully transforming into a flirtatious and poised professional, letting Dorothy’s haughty demeanour slip momentarily as she offers a touching glimpse into the reason for her childlessness and retreat from the outside world.
But it’s Forsyth’s unselfconscious and unglamorous turn as sweetly dotty Iris that raises the most laughs as she wanders around vaguely, seemingly not quite on the same page as everyone else.
The production is not without its clichés (during the porn shoot scene there’s a surprise visit by a bishop) and there is perhaps an over-reliance on elderly ladies doing little song-and-dance routines but the perfectly-constructed barbs and familiar Bennett asides are all present and correct and most of them hit the spot.
The pace sags slightly during the last scenes and the dialogue isn’t quite as crisp as previously, but the transformation of the huge set from rundown splendour to sanitised grandeur is swift and impressive, and the satire finds its target in mocking the way the National Trust presents its acquisitions to visitors, most of whom seem to match the demographic of the play’s audience.
People is not quite classic Bennett, but his aficionados will certainly find much to love and first-timers certainly won’t be disappointed.