MISS Shepherd is (possibly) the best-known inadvertent lodger in English literature, thanks to National Treasure playwright and actor Alan Bennett’s story, play and film The Lady in the Van.
The then-young star of Beyond the Fringe moved into the then-affordable Camden in the 1970s, and soon afterwards allowed an eccentric woman who lived in a clapped-out yellow van to park in his unoccupied driveway. So began an often tetchy but tacitly affectionate relationship that lasted more than 15 years.
The story of their co-habitation was first told in an essay published in 1989, and a year later as a book. It was a hit play, with Maggie Smith creating the role of Miss Shepherd, and she also starred in the 2015 film, bringing the character to a worldwide audience.
The stage play has been a popular choice for professional and amateur companies for many years, and now it comes to Frome’s Merlin Theatre in the deft directorial hands of Philip de Glanville for Frome Drama.
Bennett presents the autobiographical aspect of the play by introducing the audience to two versions of himself, appearing together most of the time. Early on in the Frome Drama process, the director made two unusual decisions – to dress the two Alan Bennetts differently, and to make heavy use of piano music as a background. And both give a new dimension for the audience.
As the story unfolds it become apparent that Miss Shepherd has been “gently” and formally brought up, and may or may not have had a career as a concert pianist.
The two Bennetts – the one he thinks his public sees and the one he wishes he could be – are much more easily delineated by having one in black and the other in the familiar battered tweeds.
What is essential in a successful production of the play is a magnetic performance in the title role, and two convincing Bennetts. The director also has to be bold. The two most telling Shepherdian phrases are “possibly” and “the soul in question” and too many directors cut some of their frequent repetitions.
Thankfully Bozsi Davis doesn’t cut or swallow a single example. Her Lady in the Van is no Dame Maggie copy, but a carefully thought-out depiction of a remarkable, witty, smelly, grumpy, gleeful and oddly stately old woman eking out an existence in a state of constant fear and the guilt imbued by a Catholic upbringing.
Alan Burgess and Richard Thomas are the two Bennetts, often spikily warring for ascendancy.
In this strong cast David Gatliffe is a particularly weaselly blackmailer, and Laurie Parnell and Sue Ross are the ghastly yuppies from over the road. The magic-realist ending was subtly done.
This intelligent and insightful production packed the Merlin on its opening night, and is on stage until Saturday 28th. It’s very well worth a visit.