Telling (roughly) the true story of the female tramp who literally camped out on Alan Bennett’s front doorstep in a succession of rusty vehicles for 20 years, The Lady in the Van does exactly what it says on the tin.
It’s a study of the fine line between eccentricity and madness, of the tolerance – or otherwise – of a society that doesn’t know how to deal with “different” people, and, in an extended metaphor, of Bennett’s own relationship with his mother.
There’s plenty of introspection and exploration, with not one but two Bennett characters on stage, one narrating the tale, the other interacting with the uninvited Miss Shepherd and all the other characters she brings into his life.
And while the result is often entertaining and frequently fascinating, the question of whether it’s really a play at all remains largely unanswered, in spite of Bennett’s attempt at a second-act coup de theatre and some kind of resolution.
There is much to enjoy among the performances, not least the two Bennetts themselves, Sean McKenzie and Paul Kemp, who narrowly avoid easy caricature and instead pitch their voices and mannerisms just right as the Eeyore-ish, slightly mystified writer trying to come to terms with this unexpected invasion of his privacy.
Nichola McAuliffe gives a beautifully judged Miss Shepherd, filthy and utterly self-centred, yet still drawing deeply on pathos and emotion to make the audience reconsider its value judgements alongside the Bennetts.
And special mention must be made of the set, by Ben Stones, which uses three vehicles, a revolve and a full-blown lifting winch – pretty impressive for a touring production – to create the world in which Miss Shepherd lives out her final years and into which we get a poignant glimpse.