The Lady in the Van

Alan Bennett
A Hull Truck production in association with Richard Jordan Productions Ltd.
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

The Lady in the Van production photo

There could not be a more rebellious, difficult, obstreperous, cantankerous or malodorous old lady than the one who lived in an old Bedford van in the street outside Alan Bennett’s house. Neighbours complained, authorities kept trying to move her on (and hopefully get rid of her), yet Bennett in a philanthropic and kindly gesture invited her to move her decrepit old van into his garden and live there for three months. She stayed for fifteen years, during which time the writer had enough material for a very entertaining story. Was the invitation so altruistic and selfless as it seemed?

In The Lady in the Van Bennett asks himself that very question, and provides two Bennetts (Paul Kemp and James Holmes) to argue the case, neither coming to any conclusion, but arguing, correcting each other and trying to dissect their motivation. He seems to be trying to justify his voyeurism and dissection of people’s lives and to brush off his seeming generosity as perhaps ‘indolence of disposition’, preferring an easy life, although that is not what he achieved as Miss Shepherd caused him no end of problems, many connected with her lavatory arrangement which seem to involve plastic bags - stout ones he hoped.

It is ironic that his old ‘Mam’ (Fiz Marcus, flitting frequently in and out of the scene) voices the opinion that “She should be in a home” when the onset of Alzheimer’s will render that fate soon to be hers; the guilt and sorrow that he feels at having to take this step is painfully obvious. Incidentally both identically dressed Bennetts keep up the very distinctive Bennett voice and it is their observational wittering which causes the most hilarity.

Maggie Smith originally took on the role of Miss Shepherd, the lady in the van, and gave ‘possibly’ (a word which concluded most of that lady’s observations) a life of its own, giving it strong comedy overtones.

Nicola McAuliffe has avoided overstating the comedy aspect and, although there is plenty to laugh about with this demanding and smelly old lady and her ambition to become prime minister, there is a great deal of pathos and wonder at how such an obviously well educated person could end up living in this manner.

Small clues are given throughout the play. She has been a successful concert pianist, training in Paris, but was forcefully forbidden to play when a novice nun. She was an ambulance driver during the war. An accident in France when a man was killed was not her fault but she left the scene. We will never know the reason, but McAuliffe’s performance engages to the extent of making us really care about this constantly scratching old lady, indignantly insisting that the “Suzie Wong” is not emanating from her. At the end of Act One there is a fervent glow to her expression when raising her arms to the sky as if in supplication, as Simon Slater’s music seems to lift her above her surroundings.

The many neighbours at the time are encapsulated into one couple played by Emma Gregory and Benedict Sandiford, a little dig at the stereotypical ‘champagne socialists’ of the 70s, and Tina Gambe excels as the well-meaning social worker.

Ben Stones’ imaginative set puts Bennett’s house window high in the air looking down on the van, soon to be joined by a Reliant Robin, and who could fail to be moved by the sight of it finally rising to the sky when no longer needed?

This is a superbly entertaining and thoughtful play, and did Miss Shepherd finally have the last laugh? Possibly!

Touring to Watford, Winchester, Darlington, Norwich, Oxford, Harrogate and Bradford.

This production was reviewed by Robin Strapp in Winchester

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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