This fascinating autobiographical play charts the story of a surprising aspect of Alan Bennett's life in Camden Town. Bennett first met Mary Shepherd when she was living in a van in the street near his home and made friends with her. When the council told her she had to move on she persuaded Bennett to let her stay in her van in his front garden, just for a few weeks. That few weeks became fifteen years and the play documents the ups and downs of Bennett's relationship with his unexpected tenant.
The play is typically Bennett - full of wry wit, philosophical discussion and outrageous humour but with bittersweet undertones.
This play was Play of the Year in 2000 and was a huge West End success. We expet to attract a full house for this witty and ironic play which features a real van on stage!
“I ran into a snake this afternoon. It was coming up Parkway. It was a long, grey snake - a boa constrictor possibly” - just one of the more eccentric pronouncements with which Miss Shepherd - Alan Bennett’s ‘lady in the van’ - regaled him during her fifteen-year sojourn in his front garden. She had insinuated herself and her filthy, clapped-out camper van into his life after being shunted around various north London streets by Camden Council and the saga of her often tortuous relationship with the playwright forms the basis of this engaging, if slight, piece of drama.
Slight, because The Lady In The Van is in essence a dramatised novella rather than a well-worked play, with really only two central characters, albeit that one of them - Bennett himself - has two guises. The van itself is almost a third major character, forming as it does the backdrop and reference point to so much of Miss Shepherd’s chaotic and surreal existence. Director Mike Turner and his team are to be congratulated on the considerable feat of installing the VW van on to the set and on managing the dual ‘coups de theatres’, firstly to reveal it at the appropriate moment by sliding a flat away and then at the denouement, to indicate Miss Shepherd’s - and the van’s - demise by the judicious use of digital technology. Technical sophistication aside, however, the piece stands or falls on the performance of the lady herself - and Alison Grant was outstanding. Querulous, vulnerable, irritating and sometimes downright rude, the role places huge demands on an actor, and Alison rose to the challenge and created a believable and thoroughly entertaining character. Miss Shepherd was never actually a down-and-out - and that was the challenge. One always felt that she was one of life’s gentlefolk fallen on hard times, and the performer has to tread a fine line between being a tramp and being too up market. Alison Grant achieved that feat and made the dynamic between her cantankerous harridan and the gentle, retiring writer the most abiding memory of the evening.
Bennett’s ingenious device of creating two personae for himself enabled one constantly to observe and comment wryly on the predicament and responses of the other - rather as a writer does on humanity. Identically-clad and be-wigged, both Nigel Sharpe and David Morley conveyed the bemused and exasperated Bennett with their customary urbanity and intelligence. They delivered perfectly Bennett’s laconic wit in his dry Yorkshire brogue, stressed Bennett’s view of writing as a chore and in some telling passages, explored his relationship with his mother, sensitively portrayed by Christine Murphy. Indeed, one of major themes of the piece is Bennett’s attitude towards women, one of them inflicted upon him by fate and the other by birth, both carrying with them a sense of obligation and commitment.
The other characters in the piece are really no more than extras, people from Miss Shepherd’s external world against whom she can bounce off her idiosyncratic world-view, though there was delightful playing from Jenny Lloyd Lyons as the archetypal and politically correct social worker complete with her Morningside accent, Ann Thomas as the earnestly probing media interviewer and Anna Crabtree and Toby Raikes as representatives of the gentrification of Camden affronted by the incontinent and imperious old lady who was likely to lower their property values.
Anthony Dicks, Dudley Ward and Roger Murray as assorted relatives, louts and hangers-on; Kirrily Long and Edmund Jenner, looking suitably lugubrious as undertakers; and Kirrily as an ambulance driver filled other roles in Miss Shepherd’s complex life. And always, the van, large, red and almost visually smelly, loomed upstage, the centre of Miss Shepherd’s emotional landscape and the womb to which she retreated when the world and its clamour came too close.
The van dominated the stage and it is a measure of the production’s success that the way in which the characters related to it - most notably Miss Shepherd - became the central motif of this enjoyable slice of London life, as seen through the eyes of one of Britain’s favourite dramatists.