REVIEW: The Lady in the Van is a comfortable, cosy watch - with a dash of intrigue

The Lady in the Van - Dame Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings

The Lady in the Van - Dame Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings - Credit: Archant

What would you do if a tattered old van complete with tramp-like woman pulled up in front of your home?

Well playwright Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van explains exactly what he did when confronted by just such a situation. Not only did he invite the woman he describes in the opening dialogue as an ‘odoriferous concerto’ onto his posh Camden drive-way, he goes on to write a funny and poignant play about the experience.

The Lady in the Van currently showing at The Light in Wisbech is the result of his 15-year relationship as reluctant landlord to Miss Mary Shepherd, played sublimely (as you would expect) by Dame Maggie Smith.

The story is at turns touching and intriguing. Just who is Miss Shepherd apart from - in Bennett’s words - a ‘noble vagabond’, how has she ended up living in a clapped out Bedford van on someone’s driveway?

Alex Jennings as the two Bennett’s - the playwright and the man himself - is brilliant bickering not only with himself over his failure to deal with Miss Shepherd but also with the woman herself, who despite his generosity and that of his posh neighbours, never once shows any gratitude.


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She is curmudgeonly, she’s rude and at times downright unsavory. She occasionally pops into borrow Bennett’s toilet, but mostly she has a ‘carrier bag system’ for her ablutions, which at times results in unwanted ‘packages’ on the drive.

As their relationship develops it runs in parallel to that of the playwright and his mother and has an endearing quality, which gives the film a real comfortable feel. It also muses on Bennett’s penchant for writing about ‘old ladies’, including his mother.

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Miss Shepherd’s story transpires to be not only interesting - she drove an ambulance during the Second World War and was an acclaimed concert pianist - but also to contain a dark secret.

Something from which she was running from for the entirety of her time in Camden, her death allowed Bennett to put the final pieces of the puzzle together.

This is a lovely film, which makes you smile, brings the odd tear to the eye and has an ending created to fit with how Bennett feels Miss Shepherd (a devout Catholic) would have liked it to finish - with an ascension.

If you like Alan Bennett’s work then you will love this, but some of Sunday afternoon’s audience were not so enamoured. But just what they were expecting from a northern playwright, who likes nothing better than a bit of introspection, it is hard to say.

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