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A thought-provoking piece of must-see theatre



Review by David Munro

THE eponymous lady is a real character who parked her van on Alan Bennett’s forecourt for 15 years.

According to the play, she was a pianist with religious mania who had been sectioned by her brother but had escaped from the hospital.

She had also been involved in a hit-and-run accident so she was, in effect, hiding from both the medical and the legal system.. She becomes an Albatross round his neck; one he cannot escape from and he finds himself reluctantly drawn into her life and develops into her slave and carer.

This situation is observed and commented on by two Alan Bennetts representing his younger and older persona, a device which, once you have got over the initial shock, works well.

The Lady, herself, has a series of very Alan Bennett-type monologues on religion, life, the social structure and her own personality, etc.

These are delivered with skill and precision by Susan Hampshire who, while looking years younger than the Lady’s alleged 75 years, makes her a charming, if irascible character.

It is a delineation of domineering old age and irresistible personality that is flawless and very far from the sweet and rather fey performances one has come to expect from Miss Hampshire.

As the two Alan Bennetts, David Holt and Paul Bigley sound and, in David Holt’s case, look very like the real thing. Acerbic, humorous and human, they give the play a core of reason and reality while setting in context the very eccentric character of the Lady.

In addition to these three, there are two neighbours, Tim Wallers and Victoria Carling, who are given some amusing comments on the situation.

Deborah Maclaren plays a welfare officer/social worker who is the target for some of Alan Bennett’s more caustic comments on the clichéd and unhelpful woman they so often are.

Apart from the main protagonist there are doctors, ambulance men, etc, who personify the Lady’s fear and abhorrence of a structured society all of whom fit in well with Christopher Luscombe’s discreet but well conceived direction.

It is a very difficult play to pin down or categorise as anyone familiar with Alan Bennett’s work will appreciate.

The charm and wit of the writing, plus the skill of the players in general, and Susan Hampshire in particular, make it a very warm and enjoyable evening and one I was very happy to have attended.

It is a very sincere piece of writing undertaken, it would seem, in order to help Bennett exorcise some of the ghosts of his past, in particular his guilt over his own mother and her last years.

Nonetheless, it works dramatically and you leave the theatre feeling you have been observing real people in a real, if somewhat peculiar situation.

The complexity of the writing and the characterisations gives one the impression that this is a play which would reward several visits when one could appreciate better the nuances and savour more fully the brilliance of Bennett’s writing.

I do not feel, however, that this is a play which anyone with a genuine love of the theatre ought not to miss and I strongly recommend you catch it, if not at Richmond, then at least somewhere else on its tour.

It will give you a lot to take home and chew over, which today is a very rare event in one’s theatre going.

The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett.
Directed by Christopher Luscomebe; Designer, Jonathan Fensome; Lighting, Jason Taylor;
Sound, Rick Walsh.
CAST: Susan Hampshire; David Holt; Paul Bigley; Antonia Pendleton; Tim Wallers; Victoria Carling; Julia West; Thomas Fadden; Deborah Maclaren; Mick Lucas; James Curran; Hugh Osborne.
Presented by Theatre Royal Bath Productions.
Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 IQJ.
Mon, Nov 15 – 20, 2004
Evenings: 7.45pm / Matinees: Wed. & Sat. 2.30pm
Box Office: 020 8940 0088.

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