Old Money

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Sarah Wooley’s new play Old Money at Hampstead theatre is full of superb performances, as well as giving its audience food for thought. It is a look at family relationships, and the role of the family, as well as inter-generational conflict. The play highlights the lack of communication and understanding that is probably at the centre of many families, especially ones covering many generations.

Forty-two-year-old Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman) is a member of the spoilt generation that had seen their parents prosper and expected to continue to climb the social ladder, but her aspirations are above her means. Burdened by a layabout husband (Timothy Watson), Fiona continually acts like a spoilt, petulant child and her husband is equally juvenile. The play is set in 2008, and this seems to be the first time that they’ve had to behave like adults or take responsibility – but they are failing to rise to the challenge, relying on handouts from Fiona’s mum Joyce. The play neatly captures a generation’s selfish sense of entitlement to a lifestyle that is out of its reach, but also the unfairness of the economic crisis that is hitting it hard.

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In contrast to her daughter, newly widowed Joyce (the superb Maureen Lipman) is financially independent, and blossoming as she sheds the ‘mask’ that has been stifling her since she married. Joyce was married off and had children, she is still supporting her daughter as well as looking after her grandchildren, and she is now facing the prospect of being expected to look after her mother. Yet in shedding the burdens imposed on her by others, Lipman depicts a woman who is gradually being liberated after being stifled her whole life.

In the programme Wooley reflects on how people’s sympathies might vary between these largely unsympathetic characters depending on their age, but as a 21 year old – a generation only represented by Candy (Nadia Clifford), a character not directly involved in the family dynamic, my sympathies tended to rest with Joyce. She’s clearly a woman who has reached the end of her tether in regards to giving but never getting anything back. Yet I think that this sympathy may also be due to Lipman’s remarkable performance which stood out, amongst a strong ensemble cast, as the backbone of the play.

People

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Alan Bennett’s new play People has annoyed the National Trust, with Trust chairman Simon Jenkins writing a defensive rebuttal in the Guardian. Perhaps because I am not the direct subject of the attack, I read it as a slightly more tongue-in-cheek assault than Jenkins implies. Bennett has created a provocative play on a significant issue, and I think People raises important questions about the conservation of our stately homes and how this can, or should, be funded.

There is a fine line between maintaining integrity and taste and introducing new ideas to draw in visitors and make money. The play could be a critique of the public as much as of the National Trust – it is their taste that the National Trust is allegedly catering to.

Stewart Lee has commented on the unwillingness of the Trust to let visitors think for themselves or to decide how to experience a property. It is this fostering of a “narrative” for the house, to the exclusion of all else, that Bennett attacks in People. I think sometimes the National Trust underestimates the ability of their visitors to soak up the atmosphere of a house or garden without needing to have it rammed down their throats.

Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett are perfectly decked out in the stereotypically eccentric garb of the impoverished upper classes, surrounded by priceless antiques but unable to afford central heating. They can only watch as their home crumbles around them. There is a strong ensemble cast, although de la Tour’s performance in particular carries the show. The set is also beautiful, although I actually preferred it in its dilapidated state – before the Trust has renovated the house to its former glory.

This is an entertaining play, and if it has also generated a renewed interest in the preservation of our stately homes and the role of conservation then it has done both the National Trust and the nation a service.