Review: The Lady in the Van

“Mr Bennett, I came into your garden for three months and stayed for fifteen years.”

The story of a woman who is “dying, possibly”

Directed by Joe McNeice, Alan Bennett’s unconventional 15-year relationship with the local homeless woman, Miss Shepherd, is brought to the Drama Barn’s The Lady in the Van. As a yellow van parks itself in Bennett’s front garden, what was supposed to be a three-month stay turned into 15 years. The play recounts Miss Shepherd’s overstayed welcome into the writer’s life.

The casting of two different Alan Bennetts, played by Matt Spalding and Christian Loveless, provided different approaches to this single character. The way in which their interaction was never fully clarified, whether it was internal conflict or a conscience, was an intriguing omission. However, as shown through Hannah Froggett’s portrayal of Miss Shepherd, the play never takes itself too seriously. The trope of the characters’ duality was comically overturned by her throwaway comment: “Oh, hello. There are two of you now. Is that because you’re in two minds?”

The performance perfected comedic timing, and with its numerous references to the world of play, this is undoubtedly a piece of theatre for theatre lovers. Loveless’s Bennett might be an alter ego to the timid Spalding’s Bennett, yet Froggett’s Miss Shepherd is an alter ego to both Bennetts. The interaction between the three actors crafts the single concept of the “indecisive” Alan Bennett.

The performance, moreover, explores a sense of plurality, most notably during Froggett and the ensemble’s interaction with the yellow van, constantly adjusting its angle on stage. This impressive movement suited the subtle change in mood in Miss Shepherd’s character, as Froggett depicts her as playful, yet with delightful vulgarity. The lighting by Golfo Migos was equally playful; accordingly reacting on cue to the onstage Bennetts’ creative demands.

The set of the stage was kept relatively minimal, with Bennett’s house being the sole stationary prop throughout the performance. The simplicity of the set foregrounded its movable pieces, the chairs and the van, which accentuated the dynamics of each scene. The stage was in one scene crowded with chairs and in the next completely void; this constant change in the presence and absence of prop provided movement against Bennett’s omnipresent Camden house.

Although the performance at times struggled to show the passing of the 15 years, Bennett’s witty commentary on the shifting politics of 1970s to 1980s Britain established a subtle, yet coherent timeline. The awkward yet completely believable relationship between Spalding and Loveless’ Bennetts and Froggett’s Miss Shepherd is definitely worth seeing. The conflict between Bennett’s cynicism and Miss Shepherd’s wonder becomes a collective exploration of the poignancy of comedy.

Drama Barn’s production of Lady in the Van will be shown from Friday 20th – Sunday 22nd May, commencing at 7:30pm. Tickets can be bought from the YUSU website or purchased on the door.

All photos were provided by Jennie Hale