Review: People by Alan Bennett at the National Theatre

Frances de la Tour as Dorothy, Linda Bassett as Iris. Photo Alastair Muir

“Decay is a kind of progress”. Alan Bennett’s new play is about people: people you want around, people who spoil things, people who let you down, people who can’t turn back the clock or move forward.  And when it focuses on people, it does what an Alan Bennett play does best: sees in them colours nobody else can see.

The problem is the play often strays away and loses its way. There are points to be made and they are made again and again. Some characters, like Miles Jupp’s Bevan and Nicholas le Prevost’s Lumsden, are little more than mouthpieces and take up too much time. A cheeky business with an adult film is appropriately silly and perfectly enjoyable but eventually it can’t resist temptation (pun intended) and starts straining credibility.  There is repetition and deviation (even if it avoids hesitation), and in those moments the play feels vague, unsettled. Even time has a hazy quality: the characters talk about the past as if it is a fairy tale.
When the play settles on Dorothy and her family, it gains poignancy and bittersweet joy. Frances de la Tour’s Dorothy is a woman out of time, seeing everything because she doesn’t watch close enough. Occasionally, her face takes a devastating expression with all the things she won’t articulate. Linda Bassett’s Iris stays deceptively in the shadows until she delivers a heartstopping moment. Those complexities and undercurrents give the play its soul. When relationships are let to breath, the fog parts and the play gains clarity and force.
Nic Hytner’s direction has plenty of energy and keeps all the plates in the air but is occasionally fussy, substituting volume for substance. The set nicely captures squalor and splendor as two sides of the same coin, the same way the play, at its best, captures silliness and lost hope in the same breath.
People can’t compete with Alan Bennett’s best work but it still delivers moments of beauty and grace.

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