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The Lady In the Van
Recently I heard on BBC radio the plans of a politician in New York to clear the street of the homeless by making them work for a place in a hostel or putting them in prison. At the other end of the spectrum from these seemingly draconian measures, we have the Yorkshire playwright Alan Bennett. He invited a derelict woman into his north London garden together with her old vehicle in which she lived. Initially she was to stay for three months, but she in fact remained for fifteen years, until her death. So this is the scenario for his new play. It's a curious true life story -- his life side by side this eccentric woman, Miss Shepherd.
The smell is sweet, with urine only a minor component, the prevalent odour suggesting the inside of someone's ear. Dank clothes are there too, wet wool and onions, which she eats raw, plus what for me has always been the essence of poverty, damp newspaper.
-- Alan Bennett,The Lady in the Van
Dame Maggie Smith takes the role of the odiferous Miss Shepherd. She is a woman of education and has a history of refinement but with some secrets, some mystery. She can discuss everything from politics to religion but at times she is delusional, especially about her personal hygeine:
I'm by nature a very clean person. I have a testimonial for a Clean Room, awarded me some years ago, and my aunt, herself spotless, said that I was the cleanest of my mother's children, particularly in the unseen places
Dame Maggie plays Miss Shepherd with aplomb. She is cantankerous and opinionated. Her delivery is in the unmistakable tones of the English upper middle class. When Alan Bennett offers her accommodation in his garden she replies that it might not be convenient. He attempts to assure her that it is and she remains reticent -- because his garden is overgrown with ivy. A case of beggars being choosers!
The part of Alan Bennett is taken by two actors, identically dressed in Harris tweed jackets, corduroy trousers, schoolboy haircut and with his distinctive black rimmed spectacles. Kevin McNally plays Alan Bennett the writer who observes and comments, mostly from his desk. Nicholas Farrell plays Alan Bennett, the man who interacts with the rest of the cast. Both are on stage together and talk with the rather flat accent of South Yorkshire.
Bennett is a witty man, discovered by show business while at Oxford University when he teamed up with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller at the Footlights Revue. The bizarre Miss Shepherd has provided him with plenty of comic material and he describes her antics in his sardonic way, often underplaying the delivery of the funny line with a completely straight face. We see the reaction of the liberal neighbours (Michael Culkin and Geraldine Fitzgerald)in this affluent street, we have visits from the well meaning, but insufferably patronising, social worker (Lorraine Brunning) who tells Bennett that she senses hostility from him. Bennett's mother (Elizabeth Bradley) comes to stay and has no compunction in that direct Yorkshire manner, in letting her son know what she thinks of his garden guest.
Nicholas Hytner directs so that we accept the presence of two Bennetts on stage.
Dame Maggie's performance has her renowned delivery but with chomping gums
and licking her lips in the manner of the toothless. Her Miss Shepherd walks with a wonderful splayed footed gait, dressed in layers of filthy clothing, her face blackened with grime so that we see the whites of her eyes. There is some fun staging with the arrival onstage of two different Bedford vans and a splendid entrance from Miss Shepherd driving a Reliant Robin, a turquoise three-wheeled vehicle adapted for the disabled. The set shows the street curving away in the distance and Bennett's own front door outside which the van is parked, and to the side, his shambolic study, dominated by a large desk.
The Lady In the Van is a very amusing play and I did my share of laughing. However, while at least two of our senior critics feel that it should get the new play of the year award. I am not among them. Funny and enjoyable as it is, this play seems to me to skirt the deeper issues, the motivations. The playwright anticipates such reservations when towards the end he says that this has been one small track in his life, not the whole picture. He didn't quite persuade me to settle for this limited view.
THE LADY IN THE VAN
Written by Alan Bennett
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Maggie Smith
With Kevin McNally, Nicholas Farrell, Elizabeth Bradley, Michael Culkin, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Lorraine Brunning, Michael Poole, Ben Aris, William Kettle, Stephen Rashbrook, Jennifer Farnon, Chris Barrett, Alec Linstead
Design: Mark Thompson
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Scott Myers
Music Composed by: Richard Sisson
Running time Two hours and twenty minutes with one interval
The Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1V 8BA Box Office Tel: (0)207 494 5040
Booking to May 27th 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st February 2000 performance at The Queen's Theatre, London