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  • Theatre Trip Review - 'People' by Alan Bennett at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Theatre Trip Review - 'People' by Alan Bennett at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

23rd October 2013

On 24 October 2013 I watched a performance of 'people', a new play by Alan Bennett at the Marlow Theatre, Canterbury. The play is directed by Nicholas Hytner and the designer is Bob Crowley.

The play is set in a stately home owned by Dorothy, played by Sian Phillips and her sister, June, played by Selina Cadell. Dorothy lives in the house with a companion, Iris, played by Brigit Forsyth. The house is falling apart and is in desperate need of renovation. However, the sisters have very different ideas on how to preserve their house. Dorothy is considering an offer from a caller, whilst June is keen to do a deal with The National Trust, although Dorothy is appalled at the thought of having people traipse through her house. A third option arises when an old acquaintance turns up to shoot a porn movie.

Alan Bennett has created a comedy that is both extremely funny but also makes his point on devaluing and commercialising people’s lives- it's all about the money with people having to compromise what is important to them in order to survive. A Dorothy hordes old newspaper from the eighties, when Thatcher was in power and greed was good; as her sister observes "Everything had a price. If it didn't have a price, it didn’t have a value."

We see the house change from its shabby past to a grand mansion as is transformed by the National Trust. The rich red of the walls and the large portraits tell the tale of the house's 'history'. The set design is magnificent and enhances some of Bennett's key messages: that creating a 'set' is not preserving history, it is simply a genteel theme park and that focusing on greed and gain is not for the soul or the nation.

The lighting was basic and natural and enhanced the view that the audience was looking through a keyhole on a domestic, if rather grand and shabby scene. The play opens with Iris and Dorothy sitting in a room moaning about the cold and wishing for central heating. They now both live in one room of this stately home, kept warm by an electric fire. Both are dressed shabbily, Dorothy in a moth eaten mink coat and plimsolls and Iris in charity shop purchases. The lighting washes the two women to a pale existence, they are grey, dull and with little enthusiasm or future to look forward to. A man with thong enters then the curtains close and the audience hears a sex scene being filmed. The contrast of two 'respectable' women and the porno star and scene is comedic in itself.

In another scene we see the auctioneer informing Dorothy that she needs to keep a bowl safe, as it is valuable. We only know later on that this is a selling technique he uses to hook new customers and Dorothy seems upset that she has been duped and her bowl is not seen as valuable as he indicated. He talks really quickly and again this is humorous, as we see the characters of the auctioneer on show, literally a fast talking wise guy who can put a value on absolutely everything. We hear him give Dorothy a rough valuation of the property to which Iris interjects “but we haven’t got a ball park.” This is humours but poignant moment and shows just how naïve Iris really is. The valuers cut throat and money world is really beyond Iris and at this point the audience, who have great sympathy with her character worries she will be taken advantage of. Although Iris could be seen as a caricature of the age’s spinster, Forsyth injects great spirit into the character and the audience feels patronising towards Iris. There is a moment when Iris gets her knitting and is curious about the porn film being shot. When she gets a glimpse, the scarf she is knitting unrolls, this was a great piece of slap-stick comedy and the unravelling scarf represents poor Iris’s tongue as she sees things she has obviously never seen in her life!

We are then introduced to Dorothy’s rather gruff sister who brings with her the a representative of The National Trust who talks about what he wants to do with Dorothy’s home – he is obviously keen to preserve of make better everything, no matter how inconsequential. He becomes enthusiastic about preserving the urine discovered in a number of pots in a chamber of famous visitors.

We see a glimpse of Dorothy’s previous life as a model in the scene with Theodore, an old acquaintance as they dance and reminisce and reminisce about old times. We see a graceful and elegant woman talk of shared and lost moments with a man she may have had a future with – This intimate moment is enchanting and added another dimension to the play.

The changes in pace throughout the play, the contrasts and juxtaposition of characters creates a rich tapestry which keeps the audience engaged and entranced. Sian Phillips portrayal of Dorothy was enchanting, she portrayed the character as mischevious yet vulnerable – there were sentimental moments, but they were paced and there was an honesty that meant the audience didn’t feel manipulated or disengaged.

There were interesting musical techniques used to changed pace and underline moments of sadness or joy. At these moments Dorothy and Iris burst into spontaneous singing, this underlines what went before.

The play was thoroughly entertaining and enchanting. Sian Philips and Brigit Forsyth both portrayed their characters with great skill and empathy, Sian Philips’s used her physicality to great effect, there was no doubt that she could have been a model. Even in her flea bitten mink, we see how elegant she must have been in a past life. Forsyth also uses physicality to portray the dumpy, washed out spinster to great effect – her dancing is clumsy but joyous, what she lacks in style, she most certainly made up for in enthusiasm!

We see the characters of the two women clearly and there is great affection between them, with, Iris as the older protector and Dorothy more than happy for her to do so. There is one moment in the play that struck me deeply and this is when Iris and June were having a discussion about Dorothy’s miscarriage. June seems dismissive as it is too up close and personal for her yet Dorothy will not stand for this attitude and corrects June, going into detail on when it happened – this changed the mood of the scene very quickly and we saw another side to Dorothy, not the top model from a wealthy background, but a woman who had suffered a loss that was deep and lasting, only lightly covered with a veil of privacy.

At the end of the play we see Dorothy accepting of the National Trust offer and her home is transformed. She becomes a guide and no longer feels people are a threat and she embraces her new life – people are good and company is healthy. We still see a spirited Dorothy full of mischief as the plasma screen shows Dorothy and her wardrobe, unable to resist a final jab at the dull and well-worn establishment as she waves to the visitors using HRH’s famous wave.