We went to see Nick Hytner’s National Theatre production of Alan Bennett’s latest play, People. Verdict: enjoyable and amusing, but not as memorable as his best work (for example A Question of Attribution). In it, Bennett works out one of his ongoing obsessions: what’s happened to British society, and Margaret Thatcher’s role in same. His vehicle is a comedy set in a decaying stately home whose decrepit aristocratic owner (played with great panache by Frances de la Tour) is trying to decide whether or not to hand it over to the National Trust. The comic relief is provided by (a) a nauseating fine art auctioneer of the Sothebys/Christies/Bonham/Phillips variety and (b) a group of film-makers who are using the premises as the set for a porn movie, complete with jokes about erections and a Latvian actress who whiles away the time between fornications knitting something warm for her aged grandmother back home. Her pleasant vacuity immediately brought to mind the sexy Swedish secretary hired by Zero Mostel in the original production of Mel Brooks’s The Producers.
The Trust, needless to say, doesn’t come out of it well: it’s mercilessly lampooned as an outfit that saves British ‘heritage’ by sanitising and trivialising it for the delectation of middle-class folks whose capacity for aesthetic (or indeed any other kind of) judgement has been anesthetized by modern consumerism. But it has at least the consolation of being represented by a terrific over-the-top performance by Nicholas le Prevost as its representative on earth. And maybe the moral of the story is that, just as we get the politicians or newspapers that we deserve, we also get the ‘heritage’ we deserve.