In common with most people who love the theatre, I adore the prodigious output of plays, books and diaries that Alan Bennett has produced over the course of the last half century, however, I have never really subscribed to the view that he belongs in the pantheon of comfortable personalities that make up our ‘National Treasures’. Bennett himself despises the term, and there has always been as much vinegar as sugar in his writing as he wryly chronicles the state of the nation, so to bracket him with as characters as bland as David Beckham and Joanna Lumley, is to give a somewhat distorted view of his place in modern Britain. His style is perfectly exemplified by his 1999 play ‘The Lady in the Van’, which started its week long run at the Garrick Playhouse in Altrincham this evening, in this case utilising real events from his own life to illustrate wider truths about British attitudes to the homeless, mental illness and mortality.
We meet Miss Shepherd (Celia Bonner) in 1974, an elderly lady of eccentric habits and questionable personal hygiene, who inveigles Bennett to allow her to park her dilapidated Bedford Van on his driveway and proceeds to live in it there for the next 15 years. Bennett explores his own motivation for the overtly charitable act by splitting his on-stage persona into two distinct characters; is he a saintly soul, driven by altruism (Bennett 1 played by Mike Shaw), or are his motives more selfish, garnering material for his writing (Jonathan Black as Bennett 2)? He chronicles their volatile relationship throughout the period in his diary, his attitude veering daily from irritated and resentful to amused, as her outlandish views and outrageous demands are displayed. As the story progresses, we learn the tragic backstory of Miss Shepherd and her fall from grace, culminating in her ‘vagabond nobility’ being recognised by Bennett only after her death.
The audience see the peculiar attitude of middle-class Britain to homelessness through the prism of Bennett’s neighbours Rufus & Pauline (Matthew Foster & Lindsey Barker), seemingly caring but secretly selfish, more worried about the effect the presence of the van will have on property prices than the welfare of a frail and vulnerable woman. Bennett also questions his own perspective on mental illness, juxtaposing the more obvious eccentricities of Miss Shepherd with his attitude to the deterioration of his own mother (Sandy McGuire) over the same period. She is a touching figure, unsure in the elevated circles her son now inhabits, scared even to talk to Miss Shepherd as she is ‘educated’ whilst insisting that she be ‘put in a home’; the irony being that this is to be her destiny rather than Shepherd.
Despite the seriousness of these themes, this is a thoroughly engaging and funny play, regularly bringing the Garrick audience to tearful laughter when describing Shepherd’s less than pristine attitude to personal cleanliness (one scene involving ‘personal towels’ being particularly well realised). The humour is greatly enhanced by the central performance of Bonner in the role of Shepherd, bringing a frailty and confusion to the role after the interval which contrasted well with the bombastic, rude and opinionated character from the first act. Mike Shaw brought his customary assurance to the role of Bennett 1 and his interplay with his doppelganger alter-ego (Black) was dry and caustic. The set design by the estimable Barry Purves was a triumph, with the Bedford van (before and after its redecoration) taking centre stage throughout most of the evening, looking like the realisation of a Tracey Emin fantasy in all its wretched and dishevelled glory.
‘The Lady in the Van’ is a deceptively political play, asking the audience to question their attitudes to social problems in modern Britain, hopefully re-examining their behaviour as a result. However, Bennett is a masterful examiner and manages to achieve his goal with a lightness of touch and humour which is delightful to watch.
The Lady in the Van continues at the Garrick Playhouse until Saturday 9th October. For tickets visit https://www.altrinchamgarrick.co.uk/shows/the-lady-in-the-van-2/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 4th October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★