Immortalised by Dame Maggie Smith in both the 1999 West End play and the 2015 film, this new production of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van at Theatre Royal Bath, directed by Jonathan Church in his inaugural summer season and starring Sara Kestelman as Miss Shepherd, had a considerable way to go if it was to rival our enduring image of a character strangely stranded between humour and tragedy. Either way, it was a guaranteed box office hit.
Based on Alan Bennett’s lengthy true-life relationship with a delusional, cantankerous, elderly homeless woman whose only accommodation was a shoddy four wheel Bedford van, designer Robert Innes Hopkins has done a marvellous job of conveying Bennett’s natural curiosity for her daily routines inside the wagon. With a multitude of stuffed supermarket carrier bags beneath it, containing Miss Shepherd’s possessions (and goodness knows what else), we were all-believing when the play mentions the ‘Susie Wong’ the vehicle lent each and every neighbourhood it happened to pass through.
Unsurprisingly, even in the tramp populous of Camden and its environs, Miss Shepherd’s van attracted considerable attention wherever it was stationed, due to its sublime shabbiness. So did her own person which boasted an “odoriferous concerto” with “urine only a minor component”, ill-disguised by her favoured Yardley’s Lavender. All this meant that it was inevitable that Bennett should begin to document Miss Shepherd’s extraordinary existence and what had caused her to stumble into such a way of life.
Opportunity comes calling when said van, shown on stage to great effect in this production, eventually finds its way onto Bennett’s leafy Primrose Hill, much to the horror of his socially-aspiring neighbours Pauline (Emma Amos) and Rufus (Paul Hickey), who, after returning from holiday to find that Miss Shepherd has parked outside their house, are only too delighted when Bennett invites her to relocate to his driveway, for a dangerously unspecified period of time.
He thinks she will be there no more than three months – after all she is always threatening to take herself off to Brighton or St Albans – where, so says the Virgin Mary, the air is so much better. Miss Shepherd (which isn’t her real name) ends up staying for fifteen years, however, during which time she might have been a blight on Bennett’s front garden, but eventually allows him to unravel the fascinating story of her life – for which we are all eternally indebted to him for dramatising.
The two Alan Bennetts, Sam Alexander and James Northcote, are meanwhile an amusing and entirely necessary way of showing the writer’s inner conflict with, not only what to do about Miss Shepherd, but the other deteriorating elderly woman in his life, “Mam” (Gabrielle Lloyd) and the two actors achieve many laughs when it comes to the one Bennett pouring the other a glass of wine. After all, he needs it, not least after talks with Miss Shepherd’s social worker (Cat Simmons). Kestelman is equally well cast and, whilst not so downright hilarious as Maggie Smith, lends Miss Shepherd an aristocratic aura that explains how she got away with so much.
The Lady in the Van at Theatre Royal Bath until 2nd September 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website. Production images by Nobby Clark.