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The Lady in the Van

Alan Bennett
Hull Truck Theatre
The Lyceum. Sheffield

Nichola McAuliffe as Miss Shepherd Credit: Karl Andre Smit

Alan Bennett's play started life as a series of diary entries documenting his relationship with the eccentric tramp, Miss Shepherd, whose foul smelling camper van occupied the forecourt of his London house for 15 years. The play was performed in a radio version in 1990, appeared in the publication, ‘Writing Home' in 1994 and on stage, with Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd, in 1999.

As a writer, good socialist, and generally ‘nice' person, Bennett must have been fascinated by Miss Shepherd's larger than life personality, and reluctant to get her ‘moved on' by the authorities, whilst, simultaneously, resenting her gradual intrusion into his life, her rudeness and lack of appreciation of his efforts on her behalf, and the squalid and stinking conditions in which she lived on his doorstep.

In the play there are two Alan Bennetts who represent this duality of attitude: the one sensitive, caring and ‘nice'; the other outspoken, sarcastic and resentful (an Alan Bennett, whose voice the public has never heard before). The device of the two Bennetts, ably performed by Sean McKenzie and Paul Kemp, also suggests the dichotomy between the beleaguered, gentle, house owner who, in the action of the play is the one who directly interacts with Miss Shepherd: and the writer, who is an objective, cold observer, storing up her sayings and eccentric behaviour as grist to the writer's mill.

The first 20 minutes of the play is slow moving, and visually rather uninteresting, on a very bare stage. Bennett provides the back story, introduces Miss Shepherd, the two Bennetts, and some rather two dimensional characters representing the press, health and social workers and the NIMBY champagne socialists who don't want the van outside their house. Then the huge yellow camper van is dragged on set and begins to assume a life of its own. We eventually see through the open back doors, not only the detritus and squalour of Miss Shepherd's life, but also the tattered magazine pictures of Catholic icons, which have been a prominent influence in her life. The final apotheosis of the van is a wonder to behold and a coup de theatre.

Nichola McAuliffe gives a stunning performance in the stunningly written central part. She is endlessly tall, though slumped for most of the time; displays long, beautiful fingers when recalling her days as a successful pianist; and is physically very strong (leaping onto a table, arresting the forward momentum of a wheel chair before it topples into the stalls) while suggesting increasing frailty. She brings a wide vocal range and versatility to her performance, often shifting unexpectedly from quiet voiced reminiscence to aggressive stridency. She transforms herself from a vigorous middle aged woman who can slam the sliding door of the van shut with one hefty shove, to an old and increasing weak woman, who finds it hard to climb the couple of steps into the van and who struggles to close the door at all. There are key moments in this performance which unlock different aspects of the character: she can't bear to hear music played; she prays passionately ‘like a Muslim'; she has a child-like humour and also a sophisticated sense of irony; she is well educated but completely irrational in her dealings with authority. In fact, a wonderful mass of contradictions.

In the second act of the play the parallelism between Bennett's relationship with his Mam, sensitively played by Fenella Norman, and his relationship with Miss Shepherd is more fully explored. The latter was confined to an institution by her brother, before the action of the play, but managed to escape and evade further attempts to constrain her. Mam eventually succumbed to Altzeimer's and died in care. It is difficult not to suppose that the sensitive Bennett felt a degree of guilt about this, and that his tolerance and sympathy towards Miss Shepherd, was, in part, a way of compensating for this.

A thought provoking and moving revival of an interesting and unusual play.

Reviewer: Velda Harris