First published in The Times, Monday July 24 2017
The predicament of aristocrats and establishment types who have fallen on hard times is a recurring theme in the plays of Alan Bennett. He charted the fates of the Cambridge Spies, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, in his works, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. Miss Shepherd, the heroine of The Lady in the Van, is a former concert pianist reduced to sleeping rough following a spell in a psychiatric institution.
In many ways, Dorothy Stacpoole, the protagonist of Bennett’s nostalgic satire, People, exemplifies the impact of post-war social change on the British class system. Yet, the penniless hereditary peer and one-time celebrity model, who occupies a crumbling, freezing cold stately home in South Yorkshire, refuses to see herself as a symbol of the changing times. “England is not my problem,” she insists. “I will not be metaphorised. This is not Allegory House.”
Pic: Douglas McBride
Bennett’s play hinges on the dilemma faced by Dorothy (played in Patrick Sandford’s production for Pitlochry by Valerie Cutko) with respect to the family pile. One option is to flog it to Andrew Scott Fairley’s smooth-talking man in a camel-hair coat, whose company plans to shift the house, brick-by-brick, to a more salubrious corner of England. Meanwhile, Dorothy’s sister, the tweedy Archdeacon, June (Margaret Preece), has begun negotiating with the National Trust. This seems the more respectable option, even if the prospect of seeing rooms in her home roped off for public consumption horrifies Dorothy.
As in much of Bennett’s oeuvre, People combines elegiac longing for an England now departed with a certain lack of reverence for the rarefied milieu Dorothy inhabits. The prize exhibit of the Stacpoole residence is a collection of chamber pots containing the urine of famous guests, including George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling. The playwright ups the satirical ante in the second half when Dorothy seizes upon an offer from an old flame to make a porn film in the house. It’s an amusing sequence, albeit one that jars somewhat with the play’s otherwise gently nostalgic tone.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Indeed, Stanford’s production is something of a mixed bag overall, with erratic pacing and a large ensemble struggling to reconcile the play’s knockabout element with Bennett’s more thoughtful meditation on the ways in which history and heritage are increasingly treated as commodities.
Ironically, the exotic Dorothy is the most fully rounded character in the play, and her wistful desire to grow old along with the decomposing house is made poignant by Cutko’s performance. The scene in which she revives her ageing couture for an appearance in the mucky film is particularly affecting. As she sweeps down the staircase into shot, one can almost hear echoes of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!”