Pitlochry Festival Theatre
various dates until October 12
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Until July 22;
transferring to Gaiety Theatre, Ayr
Reviewed by Mark Brown
If you are a fan of the two eminent Alans of contemporary English theatre (i.e. Messrs Bennett and Ayckbourn), the summer season at Pitlochry Festival Theatre (PFT) usually obliges with a play by, at least, one them. This year’s programme offers a double dose, with productions of Bennett’s People and Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular.
I should, in fairness, declare my hand on the subject of the two Alans. Benedict Nightingale (the now retired theatre critic of The Times) once memorably expressed his contempt for “some worthily incomprehensible play by Howard Barker, Howard Brenton, or Howard something else.” In the same spirit of critical honesty, I have to say that I would take the potent, European poetics of the Howards over the conventional English naturalism of the Alans any day.
Encountering director Patrick Sandford’s production of People for PFT was, for me, very much like past experiences reviewing other prominent plays in the Bennett oeuvre, such as the famous classroom drama The History Boys or The Habit Of Art (a fictional encounter between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten). There is no doubting the playwright’s erudition, but there is on Bennett’s part a crushing lack of desire to exercise his imaginative muscle. It’s like having Picasso round for tea and finding that he has done nothing more than draw moustaches on the politicians photographed in the newspaper.
Like Ayckbourn, Bennett stands in a tradition of English theatrical realism which was forged in the 19th and early 20th centuries (by the likes of the Scottish writer JM Barrie, whose play Mary Rose is also part of the 2017 PFT summer season). This tradition prides itself on its ease of access, and lives in terror of being accused of intellectual “elitism”.
So it is with People, a drama set in the crumbling stately home that is Stacpole House in South Yorkshire (historical seat of the aristocratic Stacpooles, whose name boasts one ‘o’ more than their mansion). The play alights upon the conflict between the house’s primary resident, former catwalk model Dorothy Stacpoole, and her sister, the non-resident June (an archdeacon in the Church of England). Bennett’s drama unfolds as a schematic contemplation of the clash between the “modernising” forces of Thatcherite neoliberalism and the English self-image (a curious amalgam of the aristocratic and the egalitarian) which preceded the Iron Lady’s “revolution”.
Dorothy, who intends to live out the rest of her life in the country house. but would like adequate heating and bathroom facilities, is minded towards the offer of the cynically ambitious auctioneer Bevan. June, by contrast, wants to turn the decaying property (and its repair and running costs) over to the National Trust, even if it means sanitising the place and transforming her sister into a tourist attraction.
Having set up his themes with absolute clarity in the first act, Bennett is free, in the second, to have a bit of fun. Cue Theodore, an old flame of Dorothy’s, and a porn film director. The inevitable coming together of erotic artistes with June’s guest, the short-sighted Archbishop of Huddersfield, owes a palpable debt to the Carry On films and the innuendo-driven comedy of the likes of Dick Emery and Benny Hill.
The clunky gear shift between exposition and farce underlines the grinding obviousness of Bennett’s approach to theatrical form. Director Sandford has little choice but to play it straight, with an impressively realistic set by Charles Cusick-Smith and neatly archetypal performances from the likes of Irene Allan (as Dorothy’s “companion” Iris) and Dougal Lee (the oily-yet-earnest Theodore).
The production comes painfully close to succeeding on its own terms, but is let down by Valerie Cutko’s decidedly inflexible playing of Dorothy. Lacking the necessary emotional and psychological nuance, her acting reflects too little of the tragedy of a woman who knows she is being “metaphorised as England”, but is powerless against the twin, distinctly neoliberal powers of the Anglican Church and the National Trust.
There is another, stark combination of comedy and politics in PUNocchio, the latest summer pantomime at the Oran Mor, home of Glasgow’s lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie And A Pint. Written by Gary McNair, this cross-gendered reinvention of Carlo Collodi’s much-loved children’s tales transforms the titular puppet boy (somewhat inexplicably) from an incorrigible liar into an impulsive punmeister.
Frances Thorburn’s Punocchio runs about asking “wooden you like to know?” and talking about his “no strings” relationships. Meanwhile Dave Anderson’s Jan Petal (a feminised Geppetto, geddit?) comes over all political, taking down Theresa May with her own punny joke about the International Money Tree Fund.
In fact, the flagrant (sorry, fragrant) Ms Petal’s opening salvos are just a taster of what’s to come. When Kirstin McLean isn’t playing the Scottified Hingmy Cricket, she’s appearing as Hard Brexit-loving Bear-is Johnson. Likewise Darren Brownlie, who plays not only the fabulous Fairy Odd Mother, but also the xenophobic feline Faragio the Cat. Which is to say nothing of Anderson’s second character, Trumpoli the circus master (who has, for reasons best known to the actor, a Texan accent).
Like any good panto (and, to think of it, any bad one), director Ron Bain’s production is full of songs (such as the memorable opener ‘Panto in July’) and audience participation – oh yes it is! Hilariously rough-and-ready, McNair’s script wears its back-of-a-fag-packet credentials proudly on its sleeve. All the better for its talented and funny cast to make it up as they go along.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 9, 2017
© Mark Brown