The National Theatre is enjoying a season of Alan Bennett this winter. There’s his latest play, People, but also a couple of shorter pieces of memoir, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks.
For some reason, Alan Bennett has this reputation of being a cosy little playwright, all teacakes and tweeness. It’s probably that Wind in the Willows/Winnie the Pooh stuff, or the patronising attitude of middle class theatre-goers to the funny little Northerner (much in evidence at his appearance for the NT’s Platform series last week). This is nonsense. Beneath that tie, v-necked sweater and sports jacket beats a rather angry heart, something that gets overlooked among the subject matter. For example, there’s been some newspaper mithering about People being a misplaced attack on the National Trust which, as usual, misses the point.
The point of People is… well, here’s the thing. Alan Bennett would prefer audiences to see his plays knowing as little as possible, and letting the work speak for itself. And we defer to him because he is an incredible writer and creates beautiful plays – The History Boys remains the finest production we’ve ever seen on stage. So here’s what we’re prepared to say: People is about a dilapidated country house that the National Trust and a couple of other concerns are sniffing around, where the country house is a substitute for England and how more and more of the nation is being commercially exploited. There’s a brilliant farce scene. And Frances de la Tour is hypnotic, born to speak Bennett’s arch dialogue.
The other two treats are short productions (Hymn, 30 minutes; Cocktail Sticks, about an hour) with Alex Jennings shuffling around as Alan Bennett so perfectly that we occasionally forgot he wasn’t the real thing. (If anyone’s looking to stage a revival of The Lady in the Van, here’s your man.) Hymn is reminiscences accompanied by a string quartet, with the material ranging across Bennett’s failure to learn the violin, attending classical concerts at Leeds Town Hall and hymns themselves. The language is far from cuddly, every description sharp, precise and unsentimental. It’s not Bennett’s fault that life in a 1940s back-to-back is considered quaint these days. Cocktail Sticks, which hasn’t yet started, will be an hour based on material from Bennett’s recent autobiography A Life Like Other People’s and won’t feature music.
People is currently booking to 2 April but most shows are sold out; find out about day tickets and returns. Hymn is booking to 27 February, tickets £15 / £12; Cocktails Sticks is booking to 30 March, tickets £25 / £12. All shows are at the National Theatre on the South Bank.