Writer: Alan Bennett
Directors: Nick Bartlett and Janette Eddisford
Performers: Sarah Mann Company
Presented on what seems like the first genuinely warm and sunny day of the year, at the Brighton Open Air Theatre (BOAT), is one of Alan Bennett’s gems; The Lady in the Van. A celebrated play of the late 1990’s and more recently a film starring Alex Jenning as the playwright and Maggie Smith as Miss Mary Shepherd (the said lady in the van).
The story charts the embellished, yet true, account of the strained friendship Bennett and the homeless Shepherd struck up in the 1970’s, and the subsequent trials and tribulations resulting from the decision Bennett reluctantly made to allow the Bedford van she was living in to be parked on his driveway, as a temporary, three month, stop gap to help her out.
The action takes place in the writer’s front room, where he works, and the driveway where his itinerant guest resides. Much of the dialogue, when not involving Shepherd (as played by Sarah Mann), is between two versions of Bennett: the “writer Alan” (Paul Moriarty) who constantly observes on stage, for most of the play, staying safely behind a desk, and the “real Alan” (Nathan Ariss) who engages with the world around him as the tale unfolds.
From Bennett’s very first meeting with Miss Shepherd we are told, in very descriptive words, about the pungent aroma she emits. The use of language instills equal measures of laughter and horror from the audience and sets the scene in the opening act perfectly.
First The Lady in the Van pitches up outside several houses in the street until the council double yellow line the roadway forcing her to think of different measures.
Alan’s grotesque middle class neighbours Rufus and Pauline (fantastically played by Pip Henderson and Jack Kristiansen) claim to be liberal and easy going, but their relaxed nature is only a veneer. They want nothing to do with Miss Shepherd, she has been outside their lovely home and they are on tenterhooks about the situation until Alan invites the vagrant onto his drive; A move which Rufus and Pauline heartily agree with and positively encourage.
The dialogue zings along in this funny and touching play. Now a national treasure, Bennett is a wonderful wordsmith. The evocative description of his time with Miss Shepherd never fails to move and delight the crowd. He is the master of capturing a bygone turn of phrase and a great observer of the human condition. Several stand out lines make the audience laugh and feel deep emotion. Lines like: “People are waiting at bus stops and here is a soul in torment.” Dance on the page and are simply wonderful when delivered on stage.
Mann gives a powerful and engaging performance as Shepherd. She is a fabulously adept physical performer and the shrill,hectoring, upper class tones she gives her character’s voice are as equally captivating. Mann perfectly balances Miss Shepherd’s bombastic and unforgiving nature with her hidden vulnerability.
Both Bennett’s, “the real” and “the writer” capture the essence of the man rather than simply being an impression of him. Ariss treads the line between exasperation and good samaritan well, while Moriarty’s interjections as the writer are perfectly timed and bounce well off Ariss’s portrayal of the same character. They have good stage chemistry between them.
Having lots to do, Henderson and Kristiansen not only play Bennett’s pompous neighbours but an array of characters which allow them to show off their range. Both are very good comedic performers and it is as Rufus and Pauline they garner the most laughter from the crowd. They play the couple’s insidious superciliousness with a relish that is delightful to watch.
As the play progresses we see how Alan manages with the old ladies in his life; one being Miss Shepherd and the other his mother. Both women are becoming changed by age and it is an irony that his mother, always sound of mind, has become more frail than Miss Shepherd.
In the final third of act two we become aware of more of Miss Shepherd’s past and what might have made her turn to living on the streets. A mystery guest comes calling to the van, one Alan tries to confront, and secrets and twists are revealed as the playwright continues to cope with the increasingly delusional guest living on his drive. “How do you talk things through with someone who talks to the virgin Mary?” Alan argues with her social worker. It is very obvious you don’t but, as the play comes to a close, you see an odd tenderness that lies within the combative relationship Bennett and Shepherd had; the lady who parked her van his drive for three months and stayed fifteen years!
This is a wonderful production of The Lady in the Van. It is a funny, acerbic and warm-hearted play performed by a cast who make the words shine on the stage.
Reviewed on 27th May