Alan Bennett’s moving true story of the hilarious Miss Shepherd – the unwelcome yet much loved inhabitant of a van parked in his driveway – is currently being toured nationally by Hull Truck Theatre.
As with all Bennett’s writing, the warmth, humour and slight cynicism of his narration makes the dialogue feel as if conversing with an old friend. The familiarity of his northern wit is comforting and enchanting. The bittersweet relationship with Mam, suffering from depression and struggling as a widow, alongside the burden of Miss Shepherd reveals the patience and caring of Bennett, despite his continued complaints. As he says, old ladies are his bread and butter.
The character of Bennett appears in two forms – past and present – alongside each other. Played by Sean McKenzie and Paul Kemp, the two Bennetts form a hilarious double act. When one is participating within a scene, the other narrates. When one says to the other “Shall we go to bed?” the other replies “We don’t sleep together, this is just a metaphor.” The older Bennett retorts “That’s what they all say!” This cleverly staged relationship enables us to gain insights into the inner workings of Bennett’s mind which would otherwise be impossible to portray.
Nicola McAuliffe’s Miss Shepherd is both irritating and adorable. Her trill “Mr Bennett,” sung to her landlord at all hours and idiosyncratic speech such as ending each sentence with “possibly” are infuriating to Bennett, yet he mimics them fondly.
Ben Stones, set and costume designer, creates a stage centrepiece of the weather-beaten, old van. Its entrances on and off the stage, complemented with eerie lighting by Chris Davey and Peter Rice’s sound designer’s rousing music make for a majestic spectacle, particularly when the van is lifted above the stage after Miss Shepherd’s death.
Bennett’s absolute respect and acceptance for Miss Shepherd is astounding; he observes her routine with horror; her lack of toilet, instead using plastic bags which she nonchalantly places in his dustbin, her reuse of incontinence pads which she dries beside her gas stove and her treatment of all ailments with onion. He is aggressively defensive of her, and they live side-by-side in almost-harmony for many years.
Sadly, after Saturday 9 June, The Lady in the Van leaves the North and ventures south to New Theatre, Cardiff, Richmond Theatre and Theatre Royal, Bath on the remainder of its tour until Saturday 30th June. Hull Truck’s production is not to be missed, so may be worth the long journey…possibly.