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The Lady in the Van review at Theatre Royal Brighton

Hull Truck’s touring revival of Alan Bennett’s play is a beautifully performed and directed piece of theatre. It charts the relationship between the playwright and an elderly woman living in a van in his garden in Camden Town. Combining painful observation and humour, Bennett’s piece is as much a critical self-portrait as anything else.

Nichola McAuliffe brilliantly reprises the title role of Miss Shepherd made famous by Maggie Smith. We see her age visibly, starting out as independent and pugnacious, gradually turning inward, fighting her invisible demons. Memories of her past as a pianist or ambulance driver during the war surface, but by the end, she is still an enigma.

The play features literally two Alan Bennetts, often in dialogue with one another: the first timid, ironic, arch, the second, cynical, angry, resentful. With admirable honesty, Bennett documents his mixed feelings towards his uninvited guest: he is too prissy to touch her unwashed body, yet notices when others do.

Sean McKenzie and Paul Kemp as the two Bennetts are skilfully directed by Sarah Esdaile to avoid parody, although the play teeters on the brink of comic caricature throughout. There is no false pity here: we laugh at Bennett’s reactions to Miss Shepherd, never directly at her.

Ben Stone’s set is intimate yet grand, its centrepiece the impressively realistic vans and cars Miss Shepherd lives in. Chris Davey’s lighting and Simon Slater’s music help shape the shifting moods and emotions of the piece effectively.

Production Information

Theatre Royal Brighton, April 11-14, then touring until June 30

Alan Bennett
Sarah Esdaile
Hull Truck in Association with Richard Jordan Productions
Cast includes
Nichola McAuliffe, Sean McKenzie, Paul Kemp, Sophie Robinson, Karen Traynor
Running time
2hrs 20mins

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