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Bishop Blunders Into Porn Star as Bennett’s Play Stumbles

November 10, 2012

'People'

Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett in "People" by Alan Bennett. De la Tour plays Lady Dorothy Stacpoole who lives in a decrepit mansion with her working-class companion Iris. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/National Theatre via Bloomberg

If someone like Peter Hall can heckle “Downton Abbey” star Laura Carmichael, perhaps it’s O.K. now for the rest of us too. Alan Bennett’s new comedy “People” at London’s National Theatre may be a good place to start.

Poverty-stricken Lady Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) sits among the rotting tapestries of her decrepit stately home. Her sister (Selina Cadell), a brusque lesbian archdeacon, wants her to give the house to the National Trust, which would repair it and let visitors in. Dorothy hates the idea.

“People spoil things,” says a cynical property agent, and Dorothy nods in agreement. She’s tempted to sell the property to the agent’s cartel of businessmen instead.

So far, so straightforward. Aristocratic individuality versus plebeian hordes. Heritage populism versus filthy lucre.

The tone changes when a bored film crew arrives to shoot a seedy movie in the mansion to generate a bit of cash.

As in “The History Boys” and “The Habit of Art,” Bennett presents a version of life which seems to confuse modern social mores with those of an earlier era. Does anyone in the sex industry still shoot 1970’s-style porn on 35mm film? Does a predictably naive bishop really have to arrive in the middle of it all, as in a 1960’s farce?

It’s a maiden-auntish view of the world. Either you’ll enjoy its comforting lies, or want to heckle like Sir Peter at its pointless distortions.

The acting is excellent. De la Tour is once again a master of the put-down. Selina Cadell is amusingly gung-ho as the horsey sister. Director Nicholas Hytner provides a realistic production which, though well-paced, perhaps isn’t the best for Bennett’s non-realistic vision of the world. Rating: **.

‘Uncle Vanya’

Peter Hall apologized for his tirade during Carmichael’s climactic closing speech of “Uncle Vanya.” The 81-year-old theatrical knight said he thought the production was very fine, and that he was merely “disorientated” after falling asleep.

Those of us who stayed awake enjoyed a superb period production performed by a great ensemble of actors.

The meaty speeches all get their due. When Vanya (Ken Stott) cries over lost opportunities, the effect is more tragic for being slightly comical. Samuel West gives a terrific turn as the drunken Doctor Astrov. Anna Friel is suitably ambiguous as beautiful Yelena, who turns their backwater life upside-down.

Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith from “Downton”) matches them as Sonya, showing touching naivety and strength.

Director Lindsay Posner brings it alive by attention to detail. Yelena blows the dust from the keys of the piano she hasn’t touched in years. Telyegin touches the samovar to check its heat. A top-notch performance of a masterpiece. Rating: *****.

‘Pilgrim’s Progress’

“Masterpiece” isn’t a word one would use to describe Ralph Vaughan Williams’s rarely-performed 1951 work “The Pilgrim’s Progress” now at English National Opera.

Pilgrim (named “Christian” in John Bunyan’s 17th-century text upon which the work is based) goes on a journey to find the Celestial City. Along the way he visits Vanity Fair, which isn’t as fun as it sounds.

The score is in the composer’s English-pastoral-mystic mode and has some pretty moments. Since there’s no antagonist and no conflict -- just a series of increasingly static episodes --even this musical sweetness quickly curdles.

Mish-Mash

Director Yoshi Oida employs a mish-mash of styles. Pilgrim (Roland Wood) starts behind the bars of a Soviet prison. He then battles with a Japanese puppet-monster. Vanity Fair looks like an 1890’s burlesque night. There’s plenty of World War I imagery.

It’s as confusing as it sounds. By setting part of the show in jail instead of the Delectable Mountains (as indicated in the score), Oida forgets the inconvenient fact that Pilgrim owns the Key of Promise, which can get him out of any jail.

“Why don’t you use the magic key, you oaf?” you’ll find yourself wanting to shout. If your eyes haven’t rolled right back into your sockets with boredom, that is.

Wood sings smoothly, and Benedict Nelson and Kitty Whately make the most of their multiple roles. The chorus and orchestra, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, play beautifully.

It isn’t enough. Vaughan Williams admitted the piece wasn’t dramatic. Which begs the question: why bother to put the rest of us through a staging? Rating: **.

‘Victor/ Victoria’

There’s much to enjoy in a lively staging of the musical “Victor / Victoria” by Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini.

Anna Francolini takes on the title role(s) of an English soprano who pretends to be a Polish male drag-queen in 1930’s Paris. Subtle it isn’t.

It is, however, a jolly excuse for plenty of catchy cabaret numbers staged with a full complement of spangles and sequins by Thom Southerland. Francolini is pleasingly butch as Count Victor, and Richard Dempsey great fun as her gay friend Toddy.

Southwark Playhouse is developing a reputation for small- scale musicals. It’s just what London needs. Rating: ****.

“People” is at the National Theatre. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ or +44-20-7452-3000.

“The Pilgrim’s Progress” is in repertoire at ENO. Information: http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300.

“Uncle Vanya” is at the Vaudeville Theatre. http://www.nimaxtheatres.com or +44-844-412-4663.

“Victor / Victoria” is at the Southwark Playhouse. http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk or +44-20-7407-0234.

What the Stars Mean:
*****     Excellent
****      Very good
***       Average
**        Mediocre
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend and Lewis Lapham on history.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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