THERE is more to Alan Bennett’s Miss Shepherd than the Dowager Countess of Grantham losing her money and her marbles, and marvellously funny though Maggie Smith’s film performance was, the enduring appeal of The Lady in the Van depends on a multi-faceted understanding of the Lady and her reluctant host, the playwright himself.
Bennett’s 1999 play is a poignantly whimsical and sometimes magic realist autobiography, centered around the 15 years of his life when a tetchy and peculiar old lady inveigled herself and the van in which she lived onto his driveway in Camden Town.
Miss Shepherd was given vehicles (which she painted yellow) by titled Catholic benefactors, lived in unhygienic squalour without the benefit of running water or toilet facilities, and seemed to exist on the proceeds of the sales of pencils and pamphlets on the streets. She was dreadfully poor.
But there was much more to her than met the eye or the nose, and Jonathan Church’s insightful new production at Bath Theatre Royal until 2nd September shifts the emphasis from the barnstorming theatricality of the central role to an involving look at Miss Shepherd’s life.
Many will only have met this malodorous old bat via the 2015 film, which brought Dame Maggie Smith back to the role she had created on stage. So they will be unaware that Bennett wrote himself as two characters on stage – allowing many references to his indecisiveness.
Sara Kestelman’s deep, often gruff, voice spits out the preposterousness of Miss Shepherd’s thought processes – will she be elected Prime Minister, how tall should the Pope be? Then it turns to occasional wicked warmth, always devoid of ordinary gratitude and manners.
While the two Bennetts (Sam Alexander and James Northcote) battle with their conscience about how to deal with their increasingly depressed mother, Miss Shepherd moves magnificently on, regardless of her “landlord’s” opinions, ready to ask for assistance, and smelling worse by the season.
It’s not until the final moments that the truth of her life becomes clear, and then perhaps only to those of a certain age who remember the five forbidding Banstead asylums. There, generations of people, particularly women whose brief breakdowns were used as an excuse by their families for shifting all responsibility, were sent for a lifetime incarceration. Our Miss Shepherd was not having any of that, but an escape meant a lifetime on the run, and circumstances added to the fleeing instinct.
Sara Kestelman’s performance intensifies the religious fervour of the character, and made me long (like none of the five other stage productions I have seen) to have heard her play at the Wigmore Hall, before the angelic/demonic voices got the better of her.
This is a powerful, stylish and involving production of a play that gets richer with the years. Do see it if you can.
Photographs by Nobby Clark