The Lady in the Van

Alan Bennett
Hull Truck Theatre
Richmond Theatre

Nichola McAuliffe, The Lady in the Van
Nichola McAuliffe and Sophie Robinson, The Lady in the Van
Sean McKenzie and Paul Kemp with Nichola McAuliffe, The Lady in the Van

Published in The Telegraph last month, Nichola McAuliffe's polemical article on living on the road while touring in Hull Truck Theatre's production of The Lady in the Van contained some fairly sharp observations about certain British towns and cities and elicited some equally sharp rejoinders from readers dismayed by the actress's take on playing "the regions." What Ms McAuliffe thinks of Richmond has yet to be disclosed. But it's certainly apparent that Richmond loves her, given the warm and enthusiastic reception that Sarah Esdaile's production received last night.

The admiration is entirely deserved. For, playing Miss Shepherd, the grubby, smelly anti-heroine of Alan Bennett's archly autobiographical play, McAuliffe gives a superb performance: broad but nuanced, bold and commanding yet full of surprising touches. As Miss Shepherd recalls (or else invents) her dramatic, event-filled past (wartime ambulance-driver, piano virtuosa), McAuliffe gleams with life. Gradually she ails and declines, showing the character's aging and fading with rasping poignancy, and creating a character that is by turns irascible and tough, lyrical and vulnerable, and who remains an enigma to the very end.

McAuliffe contributes a tour-de-force, then. But The Lady in the Van is in no sense a one-woman show. The play, of course, emerges from Bennett's own experiences and, in a boldly idiosyncratic move, it features not one but two incarnations of the playwright as it charts his fifteen year association with the unruly woman who parked her van first in the street and then in the garden of his Camden Town home. Sean McKenzie and Paul Kemp offer amusing, well-judged caricatures of the dramatist, their interactions and arguments cutting to the heart of Bennett's ambivalence about Miss Shepherd and, more particularly, establishing the play's concern with the transmutation of real experience into art. Miss Shepherd's presence may be a disturbance and an irritation to the playwright but he quickly recognises her usefulness as "material" for the construction of the very play that we are watching.

The self-reflexivity of this conception—and the self-consciousness about Bennett's public persona that it reveals ("Old ladies are my bread and butter")—can grate. But Esdaile's assured, fluid production digs out the play's poignancy and its oddly magical undertones, which counterbalance the playwright's sometimes irksome self-absorption. Ben Stone's arresting design strikes the right note between intimacy and grandiosity, with Miss Shepherd's yellow van providing a wonderful burst of colour when it appears, while Chris Davey's lighting and Simon Slater's lovely piano music also add texture and warmth.

And, filling out the cast, there are vivid cameos from Fenella Norman as Bennett's querulous Mam (whose demands on Bennett parallel Miss Shepherd's), from Dale Rapley and Karen Traynor as his neighbours, and from Sophie Robinson as that Bennett staple—the social worker—who declares that Miss Shepherd's presence will indeed constitute "a steep learning curve" for the playwright. It's a pleasurable evening, then, and one crowned by McAuliffe's indelible, inventive portrait of eccentricity.

Reviewer: Alex Ramon

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