JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE LADY IN THE VAN at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 4.7.15.
3 stars ***
AS ALAN BENNETT plays go, The Lady In The Van – based on his book of the same name, and first seen in London in 1999 – is not his most convincing; it fires off all its best ideas in the first half, and then – in the second – drifts on beyond the strength of the story, for a weary extra half-hour.
If you want to see an excellent, hard-working production of this intriguing tale, though, then Pitlochry is the place to be, as director Patrick Sandford and a company of 11 actors from the Pitlochry ensemble introduce us to the true story of how, for 15 years around the 1980’s, Bennett’s north London front garden became home to Miss Mary Shepherd, a highly religious lady who lived in a dilapidated Bedford van, in conditions of astonishing squalor.
In transforming the story into a play, Bennett uses the entertaining device of creating a double narrator, two Alans in slacks, sweaters, and matching blonde wigs, who argue amiably and irritably with one another about how to cope with the situations provoked by Miss Shepherd’s presence, from unspeakable hygiene crises to visits from the social worker. Mark Elstob’s version of Alan seems a shade nervy and squeamish, Ronnie Simon’s more humorous and relaxed, like the professional writer enjoying the possibilities of the story.
Both performances, though, contribute to what emerges as a memorable sideways portrait of the changing Britain of the 1980’s. And with Jacqueline Dutoit in dotty, infuriating and poignant form as Miss Shepherd, and Ken Harrison’s fine, open set effortlessly conjuring up the place and time, Bennett leads us on a fascinating, pensive exploration of the age when he saw his neighbours morph from hippies into Tories, agonised ever more intensely over the care of the two elderly ladies in his life (Miss Shepherd and his mother), and – above all – watched and recorded, as the freedom to roam once enjoyed by eccentrics like Miss Shepherd gradually began to disappear, in an increasingly controlled and controlling society.
In repertoire until 14 October.