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Brighton Fringe 2021

The Lady in the Van

Sarah Mann Company

Genre: Biographical Drama, Comedic, Drama, Historical, Outdoor and Promenade, Theatre, True-life

Venue: BOAT


Low Down

Directed by Nick Bartlett and Janette Eddisford, Set Costume and Prop Design Sean Chapman, Stage Manager Katie Rutson, ASM Harry Bain. Producers Nathan Ariss and Sarah Mann, Assistant Producer and Merchandising Annie Gilbert. Till May 29th


This is the one with the two Bennetts. And the Two Ladies. The Lady in the Van from 1999 is a largely true account of Mary Shepherd – real name Margaret Fairchild, there’s a poignant bio; and how she pitched up in Camden in a van in the late 1960s. And how by degrees she camped outside houses, curb-creeping as it were towards the author by instinct; leading to her fifteen-year stay at Alan Bennett’s house from 1974 till her death in 1989.

Having reprised her stage role on film with the real Bennett making his way on bike to the outside set, there’s a danger of role-creator Maggie Smith on film swamping sheer drama: happily a fine production like this blasts away the digital. If after over a year of no theatre you want to get out of your van – sorry, home – come to this at BOAT.

Directed by Nick Bartlett and Janette Eddisford it’s a pacy and confident production, bold and sure-footed throughout. Praise too for Sean Chapman’s set – we’ll come to that – costume (that lady-Rambo hat is just the start) and prop design, including the stranded desk, and van with other mobile elements arriving later. Stage Manager Katie Rutson too deserves praise. Nearly everything that could go right with an outdoor production does so here.

Well of course you’ll write about this says Nathan Ariss’ trim Alan Bennett I to his ever-seated second self. There is indeed a writing desk and writing things. It sits there mid-stage right, an island in the BOAT green of living things lapping against it. Upstage left, but not always, is that van, a sort of Bedford dark khaki construction with sheets abreast to change colour from pallid blue to custard-paint yellow. Well they’re lemon nylon sheets but you get the point. It’s a magnificent thing. How lucky we are never to see inside.

Alan Bennett 2 in that arch of Leeds havering – Bennett’s persona we know so well – anchors in Paul Moriarty. Both he and Ariss manage the hesitating-kind, pretend-meanness of the man, all put down to shyness of course.

Whereas Ariss takes up the active burden of living – that’s his role, we’re told – Moriarty consummately-voiced pronounces from the comfy writing ego: laconic, sarcastic, cutting at times, truthful. Charged with unfeeling about his subject, Bennett 2 confesses gleefully he’ll find her death ‘fascinating’. But there’s an affinity between the two Alans, as you’d fervently hope. And in the end a touching camaraderie.

Only a strand of his life Miss Shepherd might seem, as Bennett 1 protests. By degrees she’s taken over our consciousness of Alan Bennett, kept at bay only by those laconic diaries. And naturally other works.

The strengths of this doubling are elusive, poignant, and in a subdued comedy, nudging the tragic. Bennett’s clearly touched by the cantankerous, eloquently deranged, filthy, smelly, ultimately wasted (in all senses) soul of the woman who fetches up, backing her van into kindness and kicking it.

Or as Bennett wants to say to Miss Briscoe, Social Worker:

‘Mary, as you call her, is a bigoted, blinkered, cantankerous, devious, unforgiving, self-serving, rank, rude, car-mad cow, which is to say nothing of her flying faeces and her ability to extrude from her withered buttocks turds of such force, that they land a yard from the back of the van and their presumed point of exit.’

Which of course he doesn’t. And Miss Shepherd’s assertion that the electricity in the afternoon’s stronger than the evening’s is worthy of Flann O’Brien (‘the water we drink is too strong’, a first cousin to her thinking).

Bennett’s mother – one of Pip Henderson’s shape-shifting roles – has shrewder ideas of where the toilet is. Offered a chance to meet Miss Shepherd on a visit, Mam declines. Like two black holes of conscience meeting, it’d be too much.

Even Shepherd realises Bennett feels guilty at Mam’s decline. Indeed the once-maligned 1980 pay Enjoy! deals with this, and Bennett sees to it his neighbours (Henderson again as Pauline and Jack Kristiansen’s Alpha-male Rufus both in running gear) never let him forget his brushes with adversity.

And there’s Sarah Mann. This outdoor production means the orchestrated first and second subjects of any audio (not as here odiferous) concerto are going to narrow to the audible. Hence Moriarty and Mann in particular dominate, but the whole cast is excellent at projecting. Only occasionally does the conversation drop below comfortable distinction.

Hence Mann must resort to a more stentorian Shepherd than you’d normally expect. Luckily – and this is one reason this production plays so well – the play features strong voices to edge with farce. It works.

There’s a touch of Miss Prism necessary, but Mann modulates her second thoughts, her tiny retreats with a falling modulation catching the nearest we get to admission, or an aside.

Mann also develops sheer physical comedy, an exuberance natural to this interpretation so there’s more sheerly glaring energy than a contained, chamber-nuanced performance might offer.

And Mann’s very funny. Her timing’s superb. More than that, the moment she recalls her nunnery-banned piano playing as a gifted concert artist is both thrilling and quietly devastating – Mann mimics the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata performance with accurate fingering too. No wonder she can’t bear to hear anyone else play it on Bennett’s radio. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) Shepherd’s (or Fairchild’s) teacher was one of the dozen greatest pianists of the century, certainly France’s greatest. Shepherd’s deluded but sometimes we’ve been deluded with the truth, as someone reveals near the end. And that’s the poignancy beyond the need to be PM happily removed as that other Margaret – Thatcher – has fulfilled Miss Shepherd’s pre-ordained role. Ariss and Moriarty, as well as the cast, rise to this crusted apex of ego blissfully.

Henderson’s main role apart from Mam and the oh-so-breathily-enamoured Pauline is Social Worker. Here she can allow a range of genuine sympathy, smug judgment and PC jargonese to snarl and snare Bennett: every which way she chides him with pseudo-empathy or condescension. Henderson’s Social Worker isn’t as studiously parodic as some, and it fits better: a more naturalistic role from which irritations all too naturally arise.

Nick Bartlett as the faintly sinister chipper Underwood scores with a touched-in magic of smugness and sneer, and an ambulance man. It’s Bartlett’s character that reveals the motive, one might say motor, for Miss Shepherd’s fugitive decisions in the first place.

Harry Bain as a Lout and various high-energy roles counterpoints him – they’re sometimes a double act as in ambulance roles. Kristiansen away from Rufus enjoys various striding-on roles as Interviewer, two doctors for each lady, with a distinction between sympathy and detached sad dismissal, as well as the annoying pressman.

Chapman’s props and Mann’s acting bestow one final benediction, one might almost say miracle at the play’s Apotheosis and Ariss and Moriarty’s direction of eye-travel is both comic and deeply touching.

Those knowing the film might not be used to theatrical performances where much depends on the language, wit, pathos and timing. Those who do will know how to adjust from those things an outdoor performance isn’t offering. There’s very little of that lost here, and there’s rich compensations in energy and breezy theatricality – another kind of sheer magic you don’t get indoors. Seeing this late in the run means you mightn’t see this lit-up recommendation. But Sarah Mann and her company will surely return with this gem of transubstantiation.