It was lovely to see the Tivoli filled almost to capacity for the first night of this production, and whether this was due to the company’s well-deserved high reputation or the fact that the play is by that icon of modern-day playwrights, Alan Bennett, is really of no matter. What does matter is that the combination of those two elements gave the first-night audience the very best of evenings, one for which it was well worthwhile leaving the comfort of our cosy warm homes.
A cosy warm home is not how one would describe the old, cold and decidedly run-down Yorkshire country house inhabited by Lady Dorothy Stacpoole and her companion, Iris. With no money to undertake repairs, Dorothy is looking to find a way to make some without being forced to move out, but her archdeacon lesbian sister, June, favours handing it over to the National Trust. An attic sale is considered and dismissed, and a likely buy-out of works of art by ‘The Concern’ fails to materialise. However, at the eleventh hour a chance to make money by hiring out some of the rooms to a dodgy film company comes Dorothy’s way…
Whilst I don’t feel that this is one of Bennett’s best plays, it certainly has its moments, not least when he is taking a pop at the National Trust or the effects of Thatcherism, when his acerbic style comes into its own. The shooting of a film using one of the house’s old four-poster beds is brilliantly conceived, while in my mind’s eye I can see all those chamber pots carefully labelled with the names of those who provided the contents, and the room piled up with the newspapers Dorothy has never got round to reading.
Jan Wyld totally inhabits the character of former model Dorothy, reduced to wearing inelegant trousers, blouse, trainers and moth-eaten fur coat to keep warm, and with her personality visibly changing when an old flame comes back into her life, having seemingly broken in to what he assumed was an empty house. Barbara Arnold also massively impresses as the dotty, sarcastic Iris and Sammy Upton is wonderfully strident as archdeacon June.
Among the men, Ian Sherwood (Bevan) and Justin Ellery (Theodore) give good, confident characterisations, as does Simon Janion (Ralph Lumsden), who dealt with his momentary memory lapse in a highly professional manner that kept him totally in character.
The first act set, complete with pictures, old hockey and lacrosse sticks, statue, grandfather clock, chaise longue and trophy animal head gives the complete impression of an old house where time has stood still, but bizarrely, it seems less impressive once it has had its makeover. I was, though, fairly close to the front so perhaps it looked better from further back.
That slight anomaly apart, this production, sensitively directed by Pete Talman, really is a joy to watch.
Further performances are on Friday 24th at 7.30 and Saturday 25th at 2.30 and 7.30.