The Lady in the Van is not a conventional play – the way it plays with the form sets it apart from the rest of Alan Bennett's back-catalogue. It is, however, an inventive and entertaining piece of writing with many of trademark bon mots and waspish asides that make Bennett the national treasure he is today.
Hull truck Theatre are to be commended by their ambitious production of what is a challenging script. Very few companies would have the audacity to tour with two camper vans and a Reliant Robin as part of their set – let alone the rest of the well-designed and constructed items. As set and costume designer, Ben Stones has achieved a fantastic level of detail and invention.
Central to the piece is the eponymous lady. Nichola McAuliffe gives a fearless interpretation of what is a fiendishly difficult role. She is, I fear, rather hampered, by an exaggerated make-up design which distances her from the audience. However she manages to tease apart the many layers of the writing to create a vivid portrayal of a very fractured woman.
James Holmes and Paul Kemp take on the role of Alan Bennett with considerable gusto. At times their performances move a little too far from impersonation through to caricature and that is a shame. I do wonder whether the play would still work if we did not know who Alan Bennett was – I guess that is something for future directors to explore.
I do have some reservations about some of the choices Sarah Esdaile made in her direction. At times, lines are clearly being played for the laugh rather than allowing the actors to be true to the characters and situations. Perhaps some of this is in the writing, but some of the humour does seem over-played.
It is great to see a nearly full Oxford Playhouse and the enthusiastic response from the audience is testament to Bennett's continuing hold on our affections. This is not a perfect production but it is nevertheless a commendable and enjoyable night out.