THE LADY IN THE VAN
by Alan Bennett.
Hull Truck Tour to 16 July 2011.
Runs 2hr 35min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 2 June at Watford Palace.
The Lady in the Van tours well with Hull Truck.
This play’s hijacked by its title. Miss Shepherd, whose bitter obituary is imaginatively anticipated by an Alan in act two, did spend 15 years with her stinking van parked in Bennett’s North London garden. But while she forms the star turn theatrically, the dramatic nub lies with the author’s self-examination.
Hence Paul Kemp and James Holmes successfully become the latest twin incarnation of the playwright, Kemp his social self interacting with Miss Shepherd and attempting to avoid doing so with others, Holmes the reflective writer, amused and critical of his external counterpart, storing, and adapting, experience into fiction.
Alan 1 is Bennett’s channel of distaste with the enervated language emanating from institutions – Tina Gambe’s Social Worker is blithely unaware how ridiculous he finds her – and with Miss Shepherd’s insanitary ways. Pained effort is his characteristic mode, while Alan 2 questions his counterpart’s motives and apparent truthfulness with observant amusement.
And, for all his success, Bennett lets his visitor assert that, despite appearances, she has lived more fully than he. For years he’s caught between Miss Shepherd, in the decaying mess of her van, and his mother, decaying mentally in Leeds (Fiz Marcus giving this occasionally seen old lady a touching edge).
Director Sarah Esdaile amateurishly allows some poorly placed furniture to conceal important parts of the action from some stalls seats. But her production becomes increasingly impressive, with fine moments such as Miss Shepherd’s long religious speech being closed down as an Alan shuts the van door, or Kemp’s uncharacteristic fury eventually unleashed at the Social Worker.
And Nichola McAuliffe treats her star-turn with dramatic probity throughout, concentrating on building a complex character rather than indulging in an actor’s technical display. When her past is hinted at and finally revealed, it fits exactly into the spaces McAuliffe has created in the contrast between confidence or aggressive suspicion on one hand, and a vulnerability that increases as she eventually struggles to speak.
Martin Wimbush is seedily polite and openly decent in his two main roles, and the other outsiders suitably sketchy. But it’s McAuliffe and the Alans who make the evening.
Miss Shepherd: Nichola McAuliffe.
Alan 1: Paul Kemp.
Alan 2: James Holmes.
Social Worker/Interviewer/Lout: Tina Gambe.
Pauline/Mam’s Doctor: Emma Gregory.
Mam/Priest: Fiz Marcus.
Rufus/Lout: Benedict Sandiford.
Fairchild/Underwood/Ambulance Driver: Martin Wimbush.
Director: Sarah Esdaile.
Designer/Costume: Ben Stones.
Lighting: Chris Davey.
Sound: Peter Rice.
Composer: Simon Slater.
Wigs/Make-up: Diana Estrada.
Assistant director: Katie Henry.