The Lady in the Van

Alan Bennett
Salisbury Playhouse
(2009)

Production photo

Alan Bennett, one of the nation's most popular dramatists, is a patron of Salisbury Playhouse. Entirely fitting therefore, that his remarkable work about Miss Shepherd, a scruffy, eccentric old woman who parked her dilapidated Bedford van in his Camden front garden one day - and stayed for ten years - should open the new Playhouse season.

Director Sarah Punshon has risen through a major Channel 4 award, West Yorkshire Playhouse, and a recent world premier at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Her production of The Lady in the Van gets straight to the heart of this unusual piece of theatre which probably reveals as much about Bennett as it does about the old lady herself.

Design is by Colin Richmond whose qualifications might just as well be in second hand vehicle maintenance, although the whole set is extremely efficient.

For a start, we have not one but two Bennetts on stage, the first as narrator, a role played originally with consummate skill by Nicholas Farrell, the second Bennett the actor in his own play, originally played by Kevin McNally.

This device, which from any other writer might have been immodesty, is in this instance near genius - for it enables Bennett to lift the lid on his real self indulgence, that of the artist for whom old ladies are bread and butter. We'll say no more here of Thora Hird!

The two Bennetts in this account are played convincingly, with only a slight touch of familiar characterisation, by Malcolm James and Peter Temple.

The lady of the title, originally the redoubtable Maggie Smith, is now personified by Marlene Sidaway whose performance may truly be described as a tour-de-force.

Shabby, vulgar, demanding and, if we are to believe the script, physically unhygienic, Miss Shepherd boasts (sic) all those attributes most of us loath about the great unwashed.

All this serves to enhance our popular view of Mr Bennett as one of the literary and gentlemanly saints of our times. Or it would if only Bennett's alter ego didn't continually drone on about how parasitic writers know the smell of a good story when they encounter it.

Various neighbours, as well as well intentioned social workers, doctors and undertakers, are nicely caricatured by Robert Calvert, Hilary Tones, James Duke and Nicola Alexis.

There is also an appearance by Ann Penfold as Bennett's Mam - yet another incident of self disclosure from a man we had all come to believe hates making an exhibition of himself.

Or does he?

"The Lady in the Van" continues at the Playhouse until 26th September.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole