If you have gone off Alan Bennett of late via the overrated play The History Boys, Hull Truck Theatre's superb adaptation of his The Lady In The Van will restore your faith in the northern wordsmith. The narrative may be stretched so much, that you have no idea what is true and what has come from his dusty old typewriter, but this does not spoil your enjoyment of what remains a very funny and poignant play.
Miss Shepherd is a bright and eccentric lady who takes root in Bennett's garden, without him being able to do much about it, as deep down he respects this displaced woman, with her lavender talcum powder smelling aroma used to mask what lies beneath. Nichola McAuliffe plays the title character with ease, making the audience sympathetic - however irritating and whiffy she becomes. You begin to think: What would I do if this woman turned up out of the blue - which is a sign of how good her performance is, coupled with the superb writing which brings her to life.
There are two Alan Bennetts for the price of one and James Holmes is the narrator version with Paul Kemp as the character himself. Both are excellent but Holmes' witty asides keep the play from becoming maudlin and self indulgent. The supporting actors do very well with small, underwritten roles including; Tina Gambe as the Social Worker and Emma Gregory and Benedict Sandiford as the middle class neighbours.
The heart of the piece is Bennett's wicked way with words. The lines seem funnier when uttered by a dopleganger, as you can imagine the playwright saying them. But there are also the trademark heartwrenching moments any fan of his Talking Heads or A Private Function expects. Here, they also have the added weight of McAuliffe's devastatingly real delivery which leaves you with a long lasting sense of melancholy long after the curtain has come down.
Sarah Esdaile's direction is solid in paying tribute to this fine material, although the piece could do with cutting slightly, as it does over run a tad. Ben Stones' evocative set has minute detail within every aspect of the famous 'van' and rounds off an almost perfect evening which will paint a smile on even the most grumpy of faces.