When I saw The Lady in the Van in the West End in 2001, the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith played the role of Miss Shepherd. No actress can deliver a line with such razor sharp precision and she totally inhabited the character, so much so that you could almost smell her. Her performance is vividly etched in my memory and for Nicola McAuliffe it must have been a challenge to make the role her own, but that’s exactly what she does do. It’s a difficult role to make believable, as Miss Shepherd was clearly a very eccentric and deluded lady who regularly had visitations from the Virgin Mary and believed herself to be a celebrity. It could so easily become a caricature, but Nicola keeps her very real and gradually we begin to like and understand this strange woman.
Nicola McAuliffe is best known for playing Sheila
Sabatini in seven series of ITV1’s Surgical Spirit,
but she has also appeared in Coronation Street and
Doctor Who. With an extensive list of theatre credits,
she played Queen Victoria at the RSC and won the Olivier
Award for Best Actress in a Musical for playing
Kate in Kiss Me, Kate.
The play is written by Alan Bennett and is based on the real life story of how Miss Shepherd moved her van into his street in Camden Town in the late 60s. As she was constantly being moved on and hounded by thugs, Alan offered her the use of his garden ‘for three months’ in 1971 and there she stayed until her death in 1989! This act of extreme generosity was never acknowledged by Miss Shepherd, but he seemed to accept this with good grace.
With not one but two Alan Bennetts in the play, we see two sides of his character. Alan Bennett 1 (played superbly by Sean McKenzie) is the social conscience part who interacts with Miss Shepherd and helps her, even to the extent of picking up her ‘turds’! Alan Bennett 2 (the excellent Paul Kemp) is narrator and playwright, who expresses his occasional resentment and disbelief at finding himself stuck with such a difficult woman.
The 7-strong cast also includes Fenella Norman (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Sheffield Crucible), Dale Rapely (The Merchant of Venice, Globe Theatre), Karen Traynor (Tracey Beaker Returns, BBC), Ged McKenna (Faith Healer, Library Theatre Manchester), Sophie Robinson (Juno and Paycock, National Theatre).
This Hull Truck production drew critical acclaim when it toured the nation in 2011, playing to sell-out audiences, from Liverpool to Oxford. Nichola McAuliffe is reunited with director Sarah Esdaile, whose recent successes include The Deep Blue Sea with Maxine Peake for West Yorkshire Playhouse and Christmas hit The Sleeping Beauty for Birmingham Rep.
Hull Truck Theatre was first established in 1972, by legendary director Mike Bradwell, after he placed an advert in Time Out which read “Half formed theatre company seeks other half”. The company lived and rehearsed in a 3-storey house, their office was the phone box on the street outside, and soon their work was regularly transferring from Hull to the Bush Theatre and the Royal Court. Writers and directors such as John Godber, Alan Plater and Anthony Minghella have all helped Hull Truck Theatre to remain a national theatre company, touring the nation, based in Hull. With a new £16 million home in the heart of Hull, the company retains a commitment to the work of living playwrights and new plays – and to discovering and developing the next generation of writers and theatre makers. For more information visit: www.hulltruck.co.uk
The play is a very heart-warming and funny account of an extraordinary character and is a delightful insight into the workings of the mind of one of our best loved playwrights. The humanity, compassion and generosity shown by ‘Mr Bennett’ is as relevant today as ever, as it raises issues of how we treat people less fortunate than ourselves. Who among us would actually want a smelly, clapped out old van parked outside our homes and an odorous, ungrateful woman occupying it? Great respect to you Mr Bennett, great respect!
Tickets are available now at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre Box Office call 0844 871 7607 (bkg fee) or visit www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury (bkg fee) Performances: Tue 24 – Sat 28 Mar
Tickets: £10 – 19.50
Box Office: 0844 871 7607 (bkg fee)
Online Booking: www.atgtickets.com/aylesbury (bkg fee)
Tour Dates: Tue 1 – Sat 5 May Cambridge Arts Theatre 01223 503 333
Tue 15 – Sat 19 May Grand Theatre, Blackpool 01253 290190
Tue 22 – Sat 26 May Curve, Leicester 0116 242 3595
Tue 29 May – Sat 2 June Festival Theatre, Malvern 01684 892277
Wed 6 – Sat 9 June Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield 0114 249 6000
Tue 12 – Sat 16 June New Theatre, Cardiff 029 2087 8889
Tue 19 – Sat 23 June Richmond Theatre 0844 871 7651
Mon 25 – Sat 30 June Theatre Royal, Bath 01225 448844