It is a story that has intrigued me ever since I first heard it a few years back when it was being made into a film starring Maggie Smith, the star of the original play. Beguiling and bonkers, Alan Bennett’s play about his encounter with a homeless stranger that lasted almost two decades is sounds too good to be true. But it is.
The play tells the bizarre story of Bennett’s friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, a homeless woman and one of life’s great eccentrics, a friendship that lead to Bennett allowing her to park her van in his driveway and live there for 15 years.
“No one knew her well. Even I didn’t know her well. But I knew what she was like.” That was the playwright describing the eponymous lady after her death. On this basis, it seems inaccurate to call this a story of friendship, as the two were seemingly never close enough to be considered friends, but more so neighbours, whether Bennett liked it or not. “One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.” Quite.
Anne Cater played the role in the last staging of the play in Newcastle in 2007 (still the only North East production prior to this one) and her performance was described as ‘startlingly good’ by The Journal. Not having been witness to that turn, I have nothing to compare Cater to on this occasion but I can certainly see why the press fawned over her. She is captivating in the part. It would have been easy, and undeniably humorous, to make a caricature of Mary for cheap laughs. Mary is, without a doubt, a comic character at times; she compares herself to St Bernadette and implies she should be canonized. But, she is much more than that: an elderly woman in ill health, a feisty battle axe who likens herself to the Iron Lady, a woman who has lived a very full life, and a tragic heroine. One story about her mistreatment at the hands of some nasty nuns brought a lump to my throat. At times it could be Dame Maggie on stage; whether or not that is a good thing is up for debate, whether Cater’s performance is a straight copy of the film or whether that is just what is required for the character. In my opinion, it is the latter and Cater delivers one of the best performances I have ever seen on the stage.
Bennett himself is played by two actors, who bicker throughout over the mixed feelings he has for the woman who plonked her mobile home outside of his house and refused to leave. Sean Burnside and Ian Willis play the two sides of the man brilliantly, with great contrast. I originally thought I would enjoy more the performance of the shorter, more stout and more obviously comedic Willis, who represents Bennett’s inner thoughts but Burnside, as the man himself, creates ample laughs and really shares the limelight with Cater. One of the final scenes where Bennett pushes Miss Shepherd round in her wheelchair is a sheer delight and a wonderful moment shared between Burnside and Cater.
A touching lament of how friendship, or something near enough, comes in all shapes and sizes (and lasts longer than one may originally think or hope) the play has heart in abundance and shows us again how one, as cliché as it may be, should never judge a book by its cover. Or a lady by the van she may or may not live in.
The Lady In The Van is running until Saturday November 19. Tickets start from £11 and are available in person at the box office, by calling 0191 265 5020 or by visiting their website here
Photo: Dianne Edwards