Hull Truck’s new Chief Executive, Andrew Smaje, unveils the 'signature production' of the new season; Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, a delightful and eccentric play based on a true story about a belligerent homeless woman who parks up her van in the garden of Bennett’s London home and refuses to leave for 15 years.
With much riding on the success of this production it is a master stoke to offer theatre goers ‘two Bennetts for the price of one’! Indeed Bennett has written himself into the play not once but twice; one version of himself is a character in the central action and another Alan acts as a commentating narrator.
Paul Kemp is superbly believable as Alan One (Bennett himself in the central action) and Alan Two (our narrator) is even more Bennett- like then the great Yorkshireman himself thanks to James Holmes' closely observed character acting. Interaction between the two Alans is simply riveting. The two men converse with each other about life, their mother Fiz Marcus who flits in and out of the plot like an annoying bluebottle, and the appearance of the old Bedford van and its inhabitant. Many typically Bennett ponderings, withering and observational doubts are exchanged hilariously between the two identically dressed Alans.
Much to the annoyance of fussy neighbours, Pauline Emma Gregory and Rufus Benedict Sandiford ,the vans’ vagrant occupant Miss Shepherd wonderfully manipulates Alan One into finally pushing the Bedford off the street and into his garden where it stays.
Nichola McAulife performance as Miss Shepherd is engaging, with her comic outlook on everyone else and her hand written manifesto on how to become the next Prime Minister. McAulife’s performance is also moving, almost casting a shadow of Mother Theresa in the sliding doorway of her van.
The appearance of the spiv-like Underwood Martin Wimbush throws some light onto Miss Shepherd’s past and her reason for living in the back of a van, in someone’s garden. As the plot unfolds I ask myself if her decision to settle in this location is conscious rather than coincidental. It seems that she and Alan are very much alike and he becomes quite fond of her, in an Alan Bennett type of way.
The Lady In The Van unravels itself in the final scenes. By the end I think everyone in the audience would like to take Miss Shepherd home with them and put a roof over her head. Two encores prove that The Lady In The Van wins every heart in the house.
Mention must be made of Ben Stones’ stunning and effective set; I’ve never seen two vans on stage before and one of them is a Reliant Robin! If there is such a thing as 'must-see-theatre' then this is it.