ALAN Bennett’s partially autobiographical play The Lady in the Van follows a strand of his life over 20 years – that part that was involved with a strange woman who moved her yellow van into his garden in Islington, and stayed.
The writing emphasises a criticism he levels at himself, that he is always “in two minds” unable to make decisions. To accomplish this he has written two Alan Bennetts and to them he gives lines that show the audience his inner conflicts. As one of them says, what he does is to take the commonplace and turn it into art.
The “star” of the show is a malodorous old bat who ekes a living on benefits and by the sale of religious and political pamphlets and pencils. Bennett first met her outside the local library, where she had chalked an image of St Francis of Assissi on the pavement. Later she demanded help to push her ancient van up the road, and later still, when the local council started painting double yellow lines on the road, she moved, temporarily, into the playwright’s overgrown garden.
So began a symbiotic relationship that lasted more than 15 years until her death, coinciding with Bennett’s mother’s own decline.
It’s a very challenging play for amateurs, and a couple of local groups have done it proud. This week it’s the turn of the excellent Swan Theatre company, directed by Mark Payne, to perform the play as a six-hander.
Vivienne Evans plays Miss Shepherd with astonishing physical skill, capturing the aging process in the space of two hours and nailing the cut-glass accent and arrogance of the upper class. I would have liked a little more anguish in the prayer, but it’s a very minor criticism.
Robert Graydon and Brian Williams play the dual role of Bennett, and their physical and vocal dissimilarities make it easier for the audience to relate the conflicts in the writer’s mind. I was pleased to hear that hilarious literary allusions, omitted in some productions, were all there and subtly punched home by the Graydon Bennett. Lyn Lockyer plays Bennett’s failing mother, and Mary Buckle and Pete Fernandez all the other roles.
The show continues until Saturday. GP-W