By Laura Ings Self
A Sunday afternoon stroll around the house and gardens of some ancient great pile, followed by the “sacrament of coffee and walnut cake” – these are the activities that make us quintessentially British. But does our poignant desire for things to be catalogued, retained and restored to their former glory take away from the fact that these cold exhibits with their red ropes were once people’s homes? This question – centring on The National Trust itself – is explored with nostalgia, pathos and laugh-out-loud humour in Alan Bennett’s 2012 play ‘People’, which, under the able direction of Mike Darbon, graced the BLT stage this month.
Former model Lady Dorothy Stacpoole (Nikki Packham) is heir to a crumbling stately home in Yorkshire, where she and her companion Iris (Alison Driscoll) live, wrapped in thick socks and fur coats to combat the lack of a functioning boiler. Dorothy contacts a slightly shady valuer in an attempt to claw back some money from the house, but her younger Archdeacon sister June (Karen O’Neill) wants to hand the property over to the National Trust.
Things get complicated when an old flame of Dorothy’s stumbles across the place on a location scout for the adult film he is producing. Dorothy’s enthusiasm lands her a cameo part and the film crew proves its worth as the boiler is fixed and Dorothy is reintroduced to the glamour of ages past.
Despite this valiant effort to raise a little cash, ultimately Lady Dorothy is forced to endow the house to the National Trust and become a sort of exhibit herself, along with its collections of newspapers (Dorothy got behind in reading them and is currently only as far as the early 1980s) and chamber pots (each one full and labelled with the name of the famous person who left the deposit; presumably a snarky nod to those amongst us who feel the need to preserve anything deemed vaguely historical, the very concept of these pots did feel a step too far for this reviewer!).
Alan Bennett’s habit of combining satire and elegy is once again demonstrated in ‘People’, although elements of the narrative do verge on farce (see aforementioned chamber pots). The appearance of the porn director seemed somewhat contrived and the cliché of the Latvian porn star was bordering on misogynistic despite her penchant for knitting and the fact she was portrayed with perfect attention to detail by BLT newcomer Joanne Smith. Despite these flaws with the script, Mike Darbon brought a wonderful world to life on the BLT stage, treating the characters with the tenderness they (mostly) deserved and handling the gags – both verbal and visual – with aplomb. The set was truly spectacular, so praise must go to Jan Greenhough for her beautiful design.
Nikki Packham was delightful as Lady Dorothy, with her portrayal of the slightly eccentric ex-model coming across as both funny and very endearing. Alison Driscoll, making her BLT debut, was great as Dorothy’s sweet but naïve companion, Iris. The two actors had a lovely rapport and were thoroughly believable as a couple of slightly dotty old ladies. As Lady Dorothy’s foil, Karen O’Neill looked every part the pious Archdeacon and the sisterly frustration was clearly played out between the two as they repeatedly failed to agree over what to do with the house.
Patrick Neylan provided the perfect amount of sleaziness for Lady Dorothy’s ex-flame-turned-porn-director and Stevie Hughes was wonderfully and perplexingly eccentric as the National Trust representative. Rich Toynton had just the right balance of self-interest and discernment as the valuer and auctioneer representing the rather shady consortium interested in buying the house and shipping it south-west.
Ann Morgan added a lovely touch of normality with her sweet portrayal of Louise, the costumier for the film, who takes a shine to Lady Dorothy and helps bring her back to her former glory. There were some very touching moments between these two characters and credit goes to both actors that these small moments were so tenderly portrayed.
Peter Yolland, Matt Sharp, Nigel Borsberry and James Williams-Ward worked well as the film crew, with James Williams-Ward’s Bruce – also known as “Mr Grip” – stealing quite a few laughs, as did Paul Green’s cameo as the unfortunate Bishop, who, of course, stumbled upon the film set in full swing. Which brings us to Pete Ditchburn’s brazen and uninhibited appearance as Colin, the porn star who apparently has trouble “rising to the occasion”. Possibly the less said about this the better, but I don’t suppose Pete’s appearance is one the BLT audience will forget for some time!