The Lady In The Van – Review

Sara Kestelman in The Lady In The Van

The irascible, eccentric and odiferous Miss Mary Shepherd proved a godsend to writer, Alan Bennett, giving him material for one of his funniest and most heartwarming plays, The Lady In The Van.

Maggie Smith, a favourite of Bennett’s, famously played the fetid and reclusive pensioner in the film version but I’m pretty sure he would have been equally delighted with Sara Kestelman’s portrayal in this latest production.

She is wonderfully eloquent as the batty old dear, with aspirations of Downing Street, who followers of this true life tale know and love.

For the uninitiated, Miss Shepherd, not her real name, lived in her ‘pied-à-terre’, a clapped out old Bedford van after being on the run for many years.

Moving it from street to street, in Liberal-minded Camden, she took advantage of Alan Bennett’s kindly nature and pulled into his front garden “for three months at the outside”….and stayed 15 years.

It is a complete mystery why he put up with her and her incontinence, with her turds frequently escaping into the playwright’s front garden.

But, following her death he wrote about the experience, translating it into a phenomenally successful play, book, film, DVD and television documentary.

The play, now an astonishing 18-years-old, opened tonight as the final production in director Jonathan Church’s inaugural summer season as artistic director at Theatre Royal Bath.

Church, who comes to Bath after a decade as artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre, hit the ground running, opening the season with critical acclaim for his production of Racing Demons.

He bookends it by directing this thoroughly charming and endearing revival of The Lady In The Van.

In-between the two he has programmed the hugely successful Betjeman monologue, Sand In The Sandwiches with the distingished Edward Fox, the brilliantly innovative and hysterically funny North By Northwest, and garnered top reviews for Henry Goodman’s performance as painter Lucian Freud in Looking For Lucian.

As first seasons go, he must be feeling pretty chuffed.

The Lady In The Van is a godsend for a director too featuring, as it does, Alan Bennett’s superbly written dialogue, and a story that is so remarkable that it is impossible to believe that it was (mostly) true.

In 1973 Alan Bennett was living in Gloucester Crescent, Camden, amid a neighbourhood of trendy arty types who, though of course wanting to help the underprivilaged and homeless, just didn’t want them living outside their highly desirable des res’s.

Into all their lives came Miss Shepherd in a filthy, stinking, barely driveable van that she had painted ‘crushed mimosa’.

After slowly working her way down the street, aided by Bennett who was frequently hijacked into strong-arming the ailing vehicle to a new spot, she settled in the road opposite his house – much to the horror of the family living there.

When the council came to put down double-yellows she was forced to move once again and bullied ‘Mr Bennett,’ as she called him, into allowing her to use his front garden.

As the years roll by we discover snatches of information about her life, witness her being plagued by local yobs, and threatened by a tramp. And, as if by osmosis, her host ends up caring for her needs more than those of his own mother.

For, while Miss Shepherd’s tale unfolds, we watch an almost parallel story with Alan Bennett’s ailing mother, who gives him almost as much grief as his stinking squatter.

William Gaunt, playing the vindictive vagabond, Underwood, is dressed in rags but sporting a rather posh accent as a foul-mouthed, less-than-loveable rogue and looks like he may have wandered in to the theatre from a nearby Beckett play.

Underwood, a fictional character created by the playwright, only has a few key scenes but ends up revealing far more about the mysterious Miss Shepherd than the writer ever got from the woman herself.

Bennett’s stage play also features not one, but two, versions of himself. James Northcote’s Bennett, who is the writer and narrator, is by far the most successful and convincing, if one were judging him against the original.

He adopts the writer’s distinctive mannerisms and accent and, lucky him, has most of the funny lines during scenes he’s narrating. He doesn’t, however bear any resemblance to the genuine article.

Neither much does his doppelganger, Sam Alexander who gives us a different side to his personality playing the acting version of the writer.

Cat Simmons gets a few laughs by regurgitating a lexicon of clichés spouted by Miss Shepherd’s right-on, politically correct social worker.

And Emma Amos, raises a smile as bubbly blonde neighbour, Pauline, whose compassion for the homeless isn’t entirely shared by her NIMBY husband Rufus (Paul Hickey).

Kestelman is fearless as the guild-ridden, malodorous and pious Miss Shepherd. She gives an outstsnding, dignified and powerful performance that never veers into parody.

The Lady In The Van runs at Theatre Royal Bath until September 2.

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