Association of Community Theatre
Show Reviews 2017
THE LADY IN THE VAN
by Alan Bennett
Colne Dramatic Society
‘The Lady In The Van’ is a gentle, warm, poignant and clever comedy written by Alan Bennet. It is also particularly and perhaps peculiarly demanding given that the playwright himself appears in the play, portrayed by not one, but two cast members. Similarly, given that the part of the ‘Lady’ was so beautifully penned by Bennett, and then developed by Maggie Smith in the film (and on stage), it is difficult to imagine any other actress in this role.
Through the characters of Alan Bennett junior and Alan Bennet senior, the play relates the true events of a period in Bennett’s life when Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s, lived in a dilapidated van on Bennett's driveway in Camden, London for fifteen years. It is a simple story of how Bennett chose to deal with the situation of having the large yellow vehicle parked in full view of his desk, disrupting his thoughts and creative flow, and of his reflections and emotions at that time. Bennett himself reveals that he did not actually know Mary Shepherd at all, but he knew what she was like: her explanations defied any argument since she appeared deeply persuaded by religious intervention (when asked why she lives as she does, parks where she does, her response is an irrefutable, “I’ve had guidance from the Virgin Mary,” she says. “She was outside the post office on Parkway”).
In truth, Bennett appears to have felt compassion for Mary, but it was a compassion that was mixed with some bewilderment and mild revulsion: Sanitary arrangements comprised the use of ‘stout’ plastic bags (not always entirely successfully) and very occasional use of his own lavatory, resulting in many hours of scrubbing after Mary had taken herself back to her Bedford van abode. In Bennett’s own words, “One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.”
Director of this particular production, Richard Sanderson, told me, “I had never seen any material from it (the play) until I watched the film. Thirty seven thousand feet in the air on route to Chicago I watched the film for the first time and new instantly that I had to direct this gem of a story on the local stage. Also, if I am being totally honest, I knew it hadn't been performed locally before and due to its new popularity, I wanted to get my hands on it before anyone else did!”
Having seen the film myself, I looked forward to this play being staged, and in one of the smallest theatres in the area, with all the challenges that a cosy stage and auditorium can present.
With a cast of ten for twelve parts, the problem of managing the many exits and entrances was dealt with by using the auditorium aisle and what appeared to be five exit points on stage during Act 1, (fewer in Act 2) and this avoided collision with the large scenery flanking the van centre-stage. The flats were beautifully painted, as were both vans that appeared. However, I did find the position of the van a little confusing given that the cast members did gesture towards the back of the auditorium when referring to the van itself. Similarly, the dustbin used by Mary Shephard for her waste bags could, I feel, have been a real bin, rather than a two dimensional representation that was tricky to open and close with any realism. This aside, it seems churlish to dwell on these aspects for the characterisation of the three main roles was nothing short of brilliant.
Alan Hargreaves gave, what I consider to be an outstanding performance of Alan Bennett (senior), as did James Bateman as Bennett in younger years. It was clear that both had dedicated huge amounts of time to getting the flat vowels perfect and Bennett’s mannerisms accurate. Both regular actors, their abilities shone, and although first night nerves appeared to affect almost everyone briefly, they were momentary and understandable.
The characterisation of Mary Shephard held similar challenges, and yet, I found myself not comparing Marilyn Crowther’s portrayal with that of Maggie Smith at all. Of course, there were echoes of Smith’s performance, however, Marilyn had developed a striking, engaging character unique to herself, and it was her performance that provoked the most laughter, and the deep sadness and affection from the audience. In Mary Shepard, the audience is presented with a woman whose history is only touched upon, apart from the snippets revealed by Mary herself, and the truth of these remain a mystery, although the audience is made aware that Mary had certainly been gifted as a child musically, had been mistreated certainly, and carried a deep sense of guilt associated with her own part in a collision with her van and a cyclist. A woman of strong beliefs, of wilful intent and vision, the actress is in rags almost throughout the play, steadfastly determined to sell her pencils and strive to be the real ‘Iron Lady’. Mary talks about running the country from her van, and Bennet’s gentle appreciation of her feelings neither mocks nor quashes these dreams. Mary Shephard’s wistful, emotional speeches were delivered with such heart, that the stage seemed to fall back and full focus was on the dishevelled, self-neglected ageing woman before us.
Alan, James and Marilyn made this production what it was. They brought believable substance to what is a short and simple story that quickly covered a fifteen year period. The other parts, played confidently by Fiona McInerney, Eric Beardsworth, Charis Deighton, Kevin Riley, Rosemary Osborne, Jessica Balderstone and John Mills merely danced on the periphery, adding a little additional humanity at times, distasteful bigotry at others. Richard I’Anson’s technical input into the production was fluid, clear and precise.
A gentle and warm comedy it may be, yet it is also a poignant, reflective observation of solitude, aging, vulnerability and inner strength, parcelled in strongly lavender-scented soiled lace. I left the theatre in awe of the three outstanding performances and looking forward to watching the film again.