Thursday, November 08, 2012


National Theatre in the Lyttleton

I clearly remember the first night of Bennett's The Old Country in 1977 – the thrill of not knowing, slowly realising, where, and who, these people were, as Alec Guinness held forth about the parlous state of the Church of England.

35 years later, in an age of social media [referenced in this new play], never such innocence again. Nonetheless, delights aplenty, and no shortage of surprises, on this Press Night at the National.
Another collaboration with the patient Hytner, with something of a company feel, Frances de la Tour contributing another memorable central role.

If you'd prefer to come to this fading country seat free of expectations and preconceptions, maybe you should take this preamble as a spoiler warning, and come back after you've enjoyed the show.

South Yorkshire, and a fine rain falling. Three [two and a half] sisters in a crumbling pile – the not very Chekhovian decay of the privileged classes. "Decay is a kind of progress". Dorothy [de la Tour] dressed in a jumble sale of woollens, green wellies, crouching down to sleep before a two-bar electric fire in the vast hall of their once stately home. Iris, her "companion", [Linda Bassett] similarly dressed, knitting for the troops, a reliable source of Northern wit and common sense. Joined later by sister June, a brisk vicar, Archdeacon of Harrogate[Selina Cadell].

The house needs saving. Will the National Trust [thoroughly mauled here, together with its spiritual sister the Anglican Church] save the day ? Or the Golf Club ? The Management College ? The shadowy "Concern" [already snapping up Anglesey and a major Cathedral] ? Or even Dorothy's old flame Teddy [a wonderful turn from Peter Egan] and his mucky films ? They too represent heritage of a kind, shooting on a fourposter with proper film stock.

As we have come to expect from Bennett, some self-referencing. "Her Big Chance"[the unglamorous face of filming porn, "Filthy is favourite!", with characters called Kevin and Colin] and the musings on the state of England. Not least the Church of England [another cleric with wandering hands]. And, as in The Habit of Art, Frances de la Tour has a brief envoi and turns off the lights as she leaves before the final curtain.

"I think she was in an Agatha Christie - I can see her in this 20s dress …" So the cream of acting talent, then, with some superb performances, the three leading ladies, plus Miles Jupp as the smooth talking Bond Street barrow boy, and Nicholas Le Prevost as Lumsden from the Trust.

"Metaphor is fraud," we are sternly reminded. And this is not really a state of the nation play. "P.S.T," - People Spoil things – the crowd have found their way into the secret garden, as Bennett wrote in the late 60s. Heritage consumers, with nothing off limits – "that at least the Holocaust has taught us". At the end, after a stunning transformation to the strains of Eric Coates, they troop in, and out, Lady Dorothy just another curiosity. But at least she has been reminded of her glamorous Schiaperelli past, and she is still in the house she grew up in.

Some classic farce – the "actress" and the bishop – and many glorious ideas, the anthology of chambers, the Coal, rumbling ominously beneath the house [a metaphor if ever I heard one], the newspapers in the attic, Trenet, and those old sixties songs ["Downtown"]. And most touching, perhaps, the relics. Not the cat's bowl, nor King Charles's shirt, nor even Coward's "pair of tights King Arthur's knights have completely worn away", but something more precious, given away on impulse to young Louise [Frances Ashman], who came with the crew for "Reach for the Thigh", showed Dorothy kindness, and returned with the tourists.

And of course, a rich harvest of Bennett bons mots and aphorisms. "Loving was never the problem; it was being loved that was hard to learn …" Dorothy confides to Teddy. Suggesting a darkness in her past, and typical of the moving melange of moods and styles that make this such a rewarding piece of theatre.

Since I wrote this review, I've read the script, seen the NT Live cinema relay, and enjoyed the piece again from a front row seat. In common with many others on both sides of the footlights, I was still saddened by the death the day before of Bennett's memorable Auden, and his History Man Hector, and feared the worst when I spotted the understudy slip in the programme. But it was only a chance for understudy Alexander Warner to show us his Grip [Bruce]; "the Companion", "Lofty", "Huddersfield" and the men who invade their family pile were all present and correct, and on excellent form. Stephanie Cole was in the matinée audience, I was informed, and next to me in row A, a formidable lady Bennett might be glad to have invented: "I went into the vestry," she confided to her neighbour, "and I said to the vicar 'I think we're in for an interesting day.' 'Oh,' he said. 'Yes,' I told him, 'I've just seen Doris's son asleep in the church ...'".

this is the documentary 
made to accompany the NT Live screening:

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