“I will not be metaphorised!” protests Frances de la Tour’s Lady Dorothy Stacpoole just before the interval of Alan Bennett’s new play. Too late, your ladyship; too, too late. The problem is that Bennett never quite settles on exactly what you’re a metaphor for.
A particular kind of England, certainly, living alone but for your companion in your huge, crumbling stately home; but what kind? A way of life headed for the knacker’s yard one way or another. It might be packaged pseudo-heritage under the National Trust, with the people of the title traipsing around. Or sold off to a private plutocratic concern to be transported wholesale to warmer climes than Yorkshire and run as some kind of corporate centre. Or left to fend for itself, as Dorothy briefly does by hiring the house out as a location to a porn film shoot. But what way of life?
A far-from-subtle speech hammers home the point that this cultural change pivots on the 1980s, so we know vaguely what Bennett is against, though he has been against the same things for a generation now. Dorothy and her companion keep breaking into 1960s pop hits such as “Downtown” or “Walking Back To Happiness” (perhaps incongruously for old gentry, although Dotty was briefly also a model), giving a clear hint as to the era when things were better. In effect, it is nostalgia for the age when we had never had it so good, nor ever did again; Bennett has surprisingly become a one-nation Tory. But again, which particulars of this age are being mourned, we have no idea. The closest I can get is that it is in some ways a lament for the death of discretion.
There is a clear attempt to be Chekhovian in this end-of-an-era meditation, but Chekhov made do with one ominous offstage rumble (in The Cherry Orchard), whereas Bennett has the geology beneath Stacpoole Hall (or whatever it’s called) settle loudly four or five times in two-and-a-quarter hours of playing time.
Bennett is one of the major assets of the National Theatre, and Nicholas Hytner’s production attracts a commensurate cast. It is the first time that I have seen de la Tour share a stage with her brother Andy (who plays an archbishop). It also features the ever-glorious Linda Bassett as her companion, Selina Cadell as her domineering lesbian archdeacon sister, Nicholas le Prevost and Miles Jupp as the men from the (other) NT and “the Concern” respectively, and Peter Egan as an old flame-turned-filthy-picture mogul (itself implausible in this day and age). But it seems as if, so long as notes are hit in the general keys of comforting Englishness and vague satire, we no longer insist on an identifiable tune from Bennett.