Review: The Lady In The Van – Arts Theatre, Cambridge

Love thy neighbour, they say, but when your neighbour turns out to be a vagrant who lives in a van first outside your house and then in your garden it makes that love difficult.

Though this may seem a wonderful fictional creation by Alan Bennett, The Lady In The Van is surprisingly one of his most autobiographical plays.

For 15 years, Miss Shepherd lived in a series of dilapidated vans in Bennett’s Camden garden. Miss Shepherd is a troubled soul, if we believe her often rambling utterances she’s been both a concert pianist and a nun. Now she’s a walking rag heap, filthy, malodorous and in desperate need of a bath; given her religious convictions it’s appropriate that she literally stinks to high heavens.

Writers are always observing for material for their prose and Bennett is fascinated by this wandering soul but, what starts as writer’s curiosity develops into genuine concern and compassion for Miss Shepherd and a real urge to protect her from both the wider world and perhaps, more importantly, herself.

Bennett also draws deep on the parallels with his relationship with his mother, a pivotal figure in his life and someone who suffered herself from mental illness. It makes for a deeply personal and moving account, full of Bennett’s trademark observation of human nature mixed with dark humour and pathos.

Bennett portrays himself as two characters in the play, Alan 1 and Alan 2, the artist and the real man. It’s a brutally honest device that shows Bennett, warts and all.

Director Sarah Esdaile for Hull Truck manages the duality well, not only the inner conflict between the two Alans but also the two parallel worlds of Bennett’s conventional home and Shepherd’s more eccentric lifestyle.

As the dual Alans, Paul Kemp and Sean Mckenzie work well together, merging into one character with two distinct personalities. Conveying an uncanny likeness to Bennett without turning into a parody, one soon forgets you are watching two actors.

At the heart for the piece, however, is a truly mesmerising performance from Nichola McAuliffe as Miss Shepherd. Clad in filthy rags that eerily evoke a nun’s habit, here is a woman torn apart by her visions of the Virgin Mary, Nikita Khrushchev, and Mother Teresa. Every movement is considered and detailed, every vocal inflection and look reinforcing the inner demons of this mentally troubled woman.

It would be all too easy to turn Shepherd into a grotesque figure of fun but, despite the absurdity of the situation, McAuliffe embodies her with a quiet dignity and respect. Miss Shepherd of course would not be complete without her van, or more accurately a procession of vans. Each decaying hulk lovingly daubed in ‘crushed mimosa’ paint and ingeniously staged in Ben Stones’ design.

While The Lady In The Van is a dramatisation of a real event and a remarkable woman, there’s also a much wider look at the issues of mental health and provision of care here. One can’t help feel that, while Miss Shepherd was lucky enough to find a safe harbour in Bennett’s garden, there are many more who aren’t so lucky.

In the end, though, The Lady In The Van is a celebration not only of Alan Bennett’s unique and perceptive ability to capture accurate human nature but also a tribute to a troubled by remarkable Miss Shepherd.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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