The REP reopens with the National Theatre touring production of Alan Bennett’s People, a hit comedy. It concerns two sisters, one a former model, the other an archdeacon, squabbling over the fate of their ancestral seat, a crumbling pile with a leaky roof that the ex-model still calls her home. In fur coat and pyjamas, she huddles under blankets in front of an electric fire, singing Petula Clark with her companion. There are interested parties: the National Trust wants to open the house to the public; the representative of a shady yet powerful group, “The Concern” is keen to buy up house and contents and move it from South Yorkshire to Dorset; and a maker of adult (i.e. “mucky”) films is scouting for locations.
Sian Phillips is Dorothy the former glamour girl and socialite, now a virtual recluse, still catching up on current events in 30-year-old newspapers. She is the beating heart of the house and also the play. Phillips imbues Dorothy with the right amount of eccentricity, tempered with likeability, vulnerability and glimpses of her former beauty – in fact, when she dresses up in her mothballed haute couture, it is clear she is still a striking woman. She is reluctant, to put it mildly, to allow people to traipse through her home. This is the main bone of contention between her and sister June – Selina Cadell in a superb comic performance, as the stuffy clergywoman, flabbergasted and disgusted in turn. She even brings on a comedy bishop (Robin Bowerman) for one of the funniest scenes. The bifocaled bishop squints at the cast and crew of a porn film, taking them to be the W.I. In scenes like this (and the shooting of the porn movie) Bennett gives us crowd-pleasing comedy, along traditional lines.
But the play has other riches to offer. Despite Dorothy’s assertion, the house is a metaphor for England. England repackaged and sold off as a version of itself it never was, a “serving suggestion” England. On one level it’s throwing into question the practices of the National Trust, but on another, the wider view is that ‘everything has a price’ and ‘if it’s worthwhile, it has to be paid for’. June is plotting to sell off Winchester Cathedral to the “Concern”. She is David Cameron in a tweed skirt, peddling the NHS to the highest bidders.
Phillips and Cadell are both excellent. So is the third of this play’s three leading ladies. Brigit Forsyth is Iris, Dorothy’s lifelong companion, in hacking jacket and slippers and unwashed in living memory. She is the antidote to Dorothy’s glamour, another aspect of the faded quality of the house.
Among a very strong ensemble, I particularly liked Alexander Warner’s porn star, Colin, struggling to ‘perform’; his Latvian co-star Brit (Ellie Burrow); and their director Theodore (Paul Moriarty) an old flame of Dorothy’s.
Bob Crowley’s set is absolutely magnificent, evoking the solidity and permanence of the stately home, and the clutter and decay accrued by just sitting there – it in turn is a metaphor for Dorothy and Iris, who are decaying just sitting there. It is when they let people in that they are revived to some kind of life, even if it’s not the life they would have chosen.
A high quality play in a high quality production, People is particularly apt for the reopening of the Rep after two years dark. As Artistic Director Roxana Silbert points out, quoting a line from the play, “The house has come home.” Unlike someone’s home, however stately, a theatre needs people traipsing in to have a look.