Penny-plain People

22nd March 2013

I have written before about NT Live – the National Theatre’s immensely successful live to cinema broadcasts – including about their showings of HamletFrankenstein and Phedre, as well as general pieces here and here. By and large I am a big fan, and out of the recent screenings I loved One Man, Two Guv’nors, admired Timon and was thrilled by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But last night’s live showing of Alan Bennett’s People came across as a rare mis-fire, and I left the Ritzy in Brixton (my regular haunt of the Clapham Picturehouse having sold out) feeling a little short-changed (my members ticket had cost £13, full price £17.50). What I have been trying to work out since is the extent to which this was due to Alan Bennett’s squib of a play and how much of my mood was down to the penny-plain presentation from the Southbank.

People is a state-of-the-nation play by a grumpy old writer who wishes that the 1980s had never happened. The setting is a run-down country house where a lady dowager and her companion are resisting pressures to pass the property on to the National Trust. One of their ruses for avoiding this is to allow it to be used as the location for a porn film. Much of the comedy is very broad – and I noticed that the National themselves had selected a 12A ‘As Live’ certificate for the broadcast, so there is nothing here to frighten the horses.

The characterisation relies too heavily on stock characters like a blonde bimbo porn star from Latvia and a bishop whose new bi-focals are giving him hell. The ’60s pop songs feel shoe-horned in, the text is more than a touch preachy, and the tone is sometimes uncertain, as when the director earnestly says ‘Porn – is – not – fun’ just after the play has harvested a lot of easy laughs from the filming of fucking. This is not to deny there is a pleasure is watching the playing out of Bennett’s animus towards the National Trust, and I liked the set-piece ‘transformation’ scene. But too much of it came off the screen as unfocussed and unfunny.

As one has come to expect, the technical presentation was immaculate, but perhaps my grumpy old critic mood was set by what felt like a hard sell for future NT Live performances unrelieved by only minimal added value from the broadcast. I was in my seat some ten minutes or so before the start time, and as a consequence across the evening I watched the trailer for This House (coming from NT Live on 16 May) three times (including once in the interval) and the spot for The Audience (13 June) twice. When things did get going, I immediately had host Emma Freud pitching me both productions and while at the same time trying to ironise her hyperbole.

What we didn’t get, as we invariably do from Met Opera Live, and which we have had from the National, was any real sense of occasion or any invitation behind the scenes. There were no live interviews and no glimpses backstage. As a curtain-raiser to the performance we watched a short film directed by Adam Low that included writer Bill Bryson being a bit defensive about the National Trust and saying what a great organisation it is. This also featured fragments of rehearsal and cogent remarks by Bennett and director Nick Hytner. In the 20-minute interval, however, we were left to our own devices – and our ice creams – with only an overhead shot of the auditorium on screen and a countdown clock.

Many of those at the Ritzy were clearly regulars at NT Live screenings, and perhaps they have had their fill of the world beyond the Lyttleton stage. Perhaps it is now a matter of just wanting the performance – and being quite prepared to do a little penance by sitting through the repeated trailers. But I like to think of these trips to the theatre-at-the-cinema as a little special and I really do want something a touch of stage magic. Whereas last night I felt my £13 purchased a rather ordinary play with a rather ordinary presentation package attached.

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