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The Lady in the Van

Published by: Steve Burbridge on 14th Jun 2011 | View all blogs by Steve Burbridge


The Lady In The Van

Darlington Civic Theatre


Perhaps one of the strangest things about Alan Bennett’s play, ‘The Lady in the Van’, is that it is actually based on factual experiences. In 1974, Miss Mary Shepherd drove into Bennett’s garden in a battered old Bedford van and remained there for fifteen years – until her death in 1989.

The play tells the bittersweet story of the relationship between the eccentric, indomitable bag lady and the meek and mild-mannered writer. It not only chronicles Bennett’s frustrating and hilarious encounters with the eponymous ‘lady in the van’  but also with a series of other characters, including a patronising social worker, snobbish neighbours, a threatening blackmailer and Bennett’s dementia-suffering mother.

Bennett’s unique and introspective humour may not suit all tastes, but it is particularly apt at highlighting the poignancy and pathos in seemingly ordinary situations, and the issues raised in the piece include human isolation, the gap between self-awareness and the capacity to change, and the power of propriety.

Nichola McAuliffe gives a tour-de-force performance as Miss Shepherd. Her characterisation of Bennett’s somewhat unwelcome tenant depicts her, by turn, as tough as old boots one moment and as fragile and vulnerable as a bird with a broken wing the next.

Two Alan Bennett’s appear on stage and, although this may sound confusing, it works rather nicely. Paul Kemp is the younger Bennett who is integrally involved in the events that are played out, whilst James Holmes is the older, objective Bennett who looks back over these events retrospectively – sometimes even offering advice to his younger self. Both actors have nailed every last nuance of Bennett’s physical and vocal mannerisms and they each deliver engaging performances.

Peripheral parts are played with panache by Tina Gambe, Emma Gregory, Fiz Marcus, Benedict Sandiford and Martin Wimbush.

Ben Stone’s stunning but simple set design provides the perfect environment and backdrop for the events to be played out and Sarah Esdaile’s direction is both slick and subtle.

‘The Lady in the Van’ is often referred to as a modern classic, and this new production, from Hull Truck, is completely worthy of being categorised as such.

Ian Cain.

Runs until Saturday 18 June 2011.



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