IoS theatre review: People, NT Lyttelton, London Daddy Long Legs, St James Theatre, London Blackta, Young Vic Maria, London

Alan Bennett's stately-home satire delivers terrific lines, but rests on shaky foundations

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The Independent Culture

The aristocracy is struggling to make ends meet. The ancestral pile has become unsustainable in People, a country-house comedy for our shamelessly capitalist era, written by Alan Bennett and premiered by Nicholas Hytner.

Frances de la Tour's aged Lady Dorothy and her sister June (Selina Cadell), are at odds over how to preserve or sell the family's dilapidated Yorkshire mansion. The place looks like one of World of Interiors' more eccentric finds: a palatial yet ramshackle crimson drawing-room, cluttered with heirlooms as if for a jumble sale – gilt-framed Old Masters stashed alongside dusty hip baths and cat-food bowls.

A valuer, from somewhere like Sotheby's, is rootling around looking for prize booty while De la Tour looks askance. A fabulously dishevelled boho, in moth-eaten fur coat and plimsolls, her Dorothy exudes languid loftiness but is agog at the valuer's burgeoning estimate.

Moreover, he has a second proposition: a wholesale purchase of the house by The Concern, a mysterious conglomerate of so-called "philanthropists" who are – oil prices allowing – on a surreptitious mission to buy up England's grand edifices, to "save" them from the horrors of accessibility and Joe Public, who always spoils one's sense of privacy.

Linda Bassett's Iris – Dorothy's "companion", with the relics of a colliery-village accent – is her equal in entertaining decrepitude, with an impish streak. Not as naive as they seem, the pair are renting out the stately home to a porn-film crew. Posing as a grande dame and maid, they blithely totter on as extras.

Climbing on her moral high horse, Cadell's June insists the house be turned over to the National Trust. Nicholas Le Prevost, as the Trust's eager-beaver boss, assures Dorothy he wants to conserve everything with total authenticity – if she and Iris would care to play along. That anyone is to be trusted seems dubious, however.

People is a satire about revered English institutions, exploitation, class and cash-flow. Bennett embraces the long view, historically, at the same time as offering some terrifically funny lines and endearingly cranky characters. Bassett and De la Tour charmingly launch into song and dance numbers with arthritic gusto. Bennett's slide into the macabre and dreamlike might be engaging too. Regrettably, though, the sex farce proves lame, and Hytner's production falls apart, unsure whether or not the character's musings on Margaret Thatcher's legacy are a lecture to the audience. Given this uncertainty, the over-amplified rumble of undermined foundations seems crassly symbolic.

The US supposedly has no snobbish class system. Jervis Pendleton is manifestly from America's upper echelons though, in Daddy Long Legs. That's Jean Webster's 1912 novel, transformed into an epistolary musical by composer Paul Gordon and John Caird.

In Caird's snugly staged chamber production – at the chi-chi, newly opened St James Theatre, near Buckingham Palace – Robert Adelman Hancock's Jervis is a wealthy gent with an oak-panelled study. Disliking his snooty relatives, he determines to act as a benefactor, paying for the college education of an orphan, Megan McGinnis's Jerusha. The deal is that she write him letters but never expect a reply or know his real identity. She nicknames him Daddy Long Legs, and keeps asking him what colour his eyes are. He falls for her spirited and affection-craving missives, then woos her in person but incognito – with gratifying news of how he's arriving in the next post.

Hancock is handsome. McGinnis's Jerusha – having gained the literary skills to pay her own way as a novelist – swiftly forgives his deception for a supposedly happy-ever-after ending. But as romances go, this is unwittingly creepy. Freud would have had a field day. A few of Gordon's duets have pretty harmonies, with a hint of folksong, but more often Daddy Long Legs is a combination of the saccharine and the psychologically twisted, if you ask me. Run away!

Last but far from least, Blackta is an electrifying new play by the thespian-turned-writer Nathaniel Martello-White which follows a bunch of black British actors who cross paths on the auditions circuit. Confident to start with, several become depressed and enraged by institutionalised racism. The industry, they say, is still rigged by Oxbridge "floppy heads" and auditions are an absurd game show run by a never-seen Big Brother.

Blackta is an assured and discomforting play, ricocheting between slangy chat, self-critical satire, searing rage, and fantasies. David Lan's snappy production has a crack cast – including Anthony Welsh, Javone Prince, and Daniel Francis – and a bewitching set (both designed and lit by Jeremy Herbert) with a wall of spinning doors and ominous hammering from the engine room.

 

'People' (020-7452 3000) to 2 Apr. 'Daddy Long Legs' (0844 264 2140) to 8 Dec. 'Blackta' (020-7922 2922) to 24 Nov

Critic's Choice

Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins are both droll and heartbreaking in Constellations, a love affair replayed in parallel universes. A Royal Court transfer, it’s at London’s Duke of York’s (to 5 Jan). At Hampstead Theatre (to 24 Nov), 55 Days is Howard Brenton’s taut, absorbing new history play about the trial of Cromwell and Charles I, directed by Howard Davies.

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