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A CurtainUp London London Review

The new feudalism, the National Trust volunteer army! — Lady Dorothy
Frances de la Tour as Dorothy Stacpoole and Linda Bassett as Iris (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Just three years since The Habit of Art, comes a new play from Alan Bennett about the state of the nation’s stately homes. Bob Crowley’s splendid but dilapidated set has a huge hole in the ceiling covered with an ugly, sinking tarpaulin but there are period portraits on the walls in gilded frames.

When a valuer, Bevan (Miles Jupp) comes to list what might be auctioned off, any receptacle from buckets to jugs is exempt, needed to catch the rainwater from the leaking roof. The elder daughter and one time haute couture, catwalk model, Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) has inherited the house and estate and is charged with finding a solution to its problematic condition. Lady Stacpoole’s long term companion is Iris, a delightfully dry and candid Linda Bassett. Dorothy and Iris, like a pair of female tramps, wear layers and layers of clothes and sleep in the huge, unheated downstairs drawing room.

Lady Stacpoole’s sister is the no-nonsense and rather unsympathetic June Stacpoole, an archdeacon or female member of the clergy played by Selina Cadell. June and Dorothy will never see eye to eye on how to rescue the house or anything else. In the absence of one of television’s current country house rescue programmes, the Stacpooles have to find their own solution. June favours donating the house to The National Trust and in return the family being allowed to live in a very small apartment onsite. Dorothy doesn’t fancy the idea of all those visitors trooping round her family home despite assurances as to the middle class nature of the average National Trust visitor.

There are however hard alternatives. Bevan, brought in for a valuation to raise money, can introduce Lady Stacpoole to a very rich, secretive and reclusive client base who would want to keep the house to themselves. To underline his point, Bevan says, “What is the worst thing in the world?” And answers his question himself, “Other People!” An old flame of Dorothy’s, Mr Theodore (Peter Egan) would like to use the house as a film set, the four poster bed, for making a bodice ripping costume piece of soft pornography. June doesn’t like either idea describing the auction houses of Christies, Bonhams, Southebys and the like as “barrow boys” and as a member of the church, we can work out why pornography filming isn’t her ideal solution.

Nicholas le Prevost is Ralph Lumsden (I can just hear Alan Bennett in his flat South Yorkshire tones delivering the name with great aplomb, savouring the vowels, Rafe Lumsden). Lumsden is the representative of the National Trust and the man charged with making difficult and invidious decisions about what to save and where. Should it be the Stacpoole home, 60s pop star Cilla Black’s childhood home or the only Children’s Library in the North East of England?

Alan Bennett is the greatest chronicler of the great English eccentric, those quirkily, bizarre people who verge on mental health cases with obsession and idiosyncrasy. Bats in the belfry people. Lady Dorothy has a fine collection of daily newspapers which she is slowly reading and trying to catch up on the news. She is on 1982 editions, maybe 30 years behind and is most upset when someone gives the game away and tells her who will win the Falklands War that she is currently reading about. These delightful details flesh out Bennett’s characters and make us smile if not laugh out loud. Lumsden is very excited to discover a collection of chamber pots remaining unemptied since they were used by famous visitors to the house, for instance George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh and Rudyard Kipling although I maintain that any liquid in them would long since have evaporated and crystallised.

Act Two is pandemonium as Teddy’s film set is in full progress for the shooting of porno flick Reach For the Thighs with walk on parts for Dorothy in some of her Balenciaga finery and for Iris dressed as a Victorian maid. Much of this act’s humour descends as do the erectile difficulties of the young porn star.

The final scene is set in magnificently restored house with chandelier, ceiling repaired and the enfiladed rooms opened up so we can look through the house into the Robert Adam rooms beyond the drawing room. Bennett is attacking the National Trust in the proscribed, formulaic and dull way that they assume that all visitors want to know what the history is and the details of the furniture, information, figures, rather than experiencing for themselves what it feels like, soaking up the atmosphere of our old houses. There is also this feeling that the nation lost its heart in the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher with the rise of the acquisitive, moneyed yuppies, “everything had a price and if it didn’t . . . it didn’t have a value”.

Nicholas Hytner directs assuredly and the performances are outstanding. Frances de la Tour is perfectly cast as Lady Stacpoole, out of her depth in debt and yet uneasy with any of the proferred solutions. De la Tour’s rangy ex model commands the stage. She is highly likeable as is her charming companion Iris played by Linda Bassett. When Bevan suggests a ballpark figure, Iris says innocently, “We don’t have a ball park.” Dorothy and Iris are Bennett creations we will remember with great affection.

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Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Frances de la Tour, Linda Bassett, Selina Cadell, Miles Jupp, Nicholas le Prevost, Peter Egan
With: Andy de la Tour, Alastair Parker, Jack Chissack, Giles Cooper, Frances Ashman, Jess Murphy, Robin Pearce, Ellie Burrow, Philip Childs, Carole Dance, Barbara Kirby, Alexander Warner
Design: Bob Crowley
Sound: Rich Walsh
Movement: Jonathan Watkins
Lighting: James Farncombe
Short film by: Jon Driscoll
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 2nd April 2013 (extra booking from 23rd November but sold out to 6 February 2013)
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th November 2012 performance at The Lyttelton, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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