The Lady In The Van Theatre Royal Bath 7/10
THIS tale can be filed under the category of stranger than fiction – because were it not for the fact that it is true, you could hardly believe it happened.
It is the saga of Miss Shepherd, a cantankerous, abrasive and most of all foul-smelling old lady, who parks her battered, un-roadworthy vehicle on the drive of author Alan Bennett's Camden Town home in the early 1960s – and stays for 15 years.
Director Sarah Esdaile gives a much darker and mystical interpretation of the piece than that which starred Maggie Smith in London, or the touring version with the unlikely but impressive Susan Hampshire, which visited Bath in 2004.
With the versatile Nichola McAuliffe in the title role – her next appearance on the same stage will be as the Wicked Queen in the pantomime Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs – we get a less comic, deeper and multi-layered character.
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When she talks of being denied a career as a concert pianist by a priest who realised she enjoyed playing more than praying, there is genuine pathos.
The piece also has a double-act of Alan Bennetts with sound-alikes Sean McKenzie and Paul Kemp sharing the role of the writer and splitting his personality.
One is timid and literally deals with the dirt, the other cynical and deals with the dirt literally, instantly realising the publishing potential presented by his unwanted guest.
The play also has an inanimate star in the van itself – in fact, two vans, a red one in act one and a yellow one after the interval, plus a cameo appearance of a Robin Reliant.
Ben Stones, who designs both set and costumes, uses all to create the desired grubby effect.
Lady In The Van – ironically a Hull Truck Company production – is parked at the Theatre Royal until Saturday.