Van makes a five star turn

Driving Miss Shepherd: Nichola McAuliffe gives a brilliant portrayal of the eccentric woman who lived in a van on Alan Bennett's drive for 15 years

The Lady in The Van

Malvern Festival Theatre

*****

ALAN Bennett  wrote this intriguingly original play to tell the true story of  The Lady in the Van who he first encountered living on his North London street.

When the council painted  the double yellow lines around her van, he allowed her to move on to his front drive. They she stayed  for 15 years. The sound of a van door shutting still takes him back to those times.

The story of  Miss Shepherd in her custard yellow van was first covered in Bennett's diaries, it then became a short story then a radio serialisation and finally this play.

On stage Alan Bennett is played by two actors. One plays the man himself interacting with the batty, filthy, tramp-like Miss Shepherd, and the other is the narrator, and speaks out loud Bennett's thoughts  as he struggles between wanting to help the woman and finding her truly exasperating in almost every way.

Sean McKenzie and Paul Kemp give great performances and have Bennett's inimitable accent and camp tone and a similar look.

Nichola McAuliffe, winner of multiple acting awards, is Miss Shepherd. She is the undoubted star of the piece, and more awards are surely to come her way.

TALENTED PIANIST

Shepherd  was an ambulance driver in the war, a talented pianist, an apprentice nun, and now a totally eccentric elderly woman, who has ended up living in her van in squalor, while making attempts to be elected to parliament and trying the patience of all the neighbours, the council, and social workers.

McAuliffe is masterful at physically inhabiting the tics, scratches, and busy intensity of this mentally-troubled woman. She never bathes, and has no access to a ‘lav', a truly malodourous woman.

She has money in the bank, but eats food from dustbins. Truly thrifty, in one scene she sucks a pear drop for a few seconds wipes it on her dress, and puts it back in the bag.  Despite all this we warm to the dotty Miss Shepherd completely.

Running in parallel to the van lady, we see Bennett's own mother, home in Yorkshire, also struggling in old age with  mental problems.

We feel that Bennett's civility for the squatter on his drive eases his guilty conscience at putting his mother in a home. His good 1970's socialist guilt is also assuaged by giving Miss Shepherd some measure of safety from the judgmental neighbours and locals. His observation that “In life, going downhill is a vast uphill battle” is so very true.

The central focus of the set is the dilapidated and yet magnificent van. A poignant moment indeed when, upon the Van Lady's death, the condemned van ascends to heaven to join its owner.

This touring production by the superb Hull Truck Theatre company is a must-see in every way -vintage Alan Bennett! To 02-16-12

Clare Trow

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