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The Lady in the Van (Tour – Liverpool)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Writers will be writers – many of us loathe our neighbours but stuck with Miss Shepherd in his garden for 15 years, Alan Bennett made the most of the material, and a remarkable play. Whether true to life, or mostly made up ultimately doesn't seem to matter; the irony is, he actually envies her interesting times.

The cleverly designed set, dominated by the van, has the playwright crammed into one little corner with his desk. However, although equally crafty, the device of having twin narrators/actors, or rather good cop/bad cop, is occasionally less than winsome though amusement is had from him getting in touch with his inner Bennett. Whilst hard to tell which was Paul Kemp and which James Holmes, both very good, naturally, it's the really good one, if you follow me, who is the more appealing.

The always splendid Nicola McAuliffe is swathed in umpteen layers and coiffed like the nun she may once have been, literally stinking to high heaven. An outstanding tragi-comic figure, she puts the 'Eek' into eccentric. In a heartbeat, switching from imperious to bewildered, the saddest thing is that this once talented pianist can no longer abide music.

Her story is poignantly echoed by the gradual decline of the playwright's mother counterpointed by waspish pops at middle-class neighbours and well-meaning, jargon laden social workers. We also learn about moral dilemmas, and about him, for example setting off on his bike to visit a theatre staging one of his successful plays.

There but for the Grace of God – and maybe it's both the lady and the gentleman we should feel sorry for, though this marvellous production is a tribute to them both.

-Carole Baldock


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