Theatre Royal Windsor (venue)
28 October 2020 (released)
28 October 2020
This much-loved Alan Bennett classic is a joy to behold. Bennett’s characteristic style combines sharp satire with a genuine love for British idiosyncrasies. The lyrical and the prosaic join in his highly accurate insight and understanding of the vagaries of human nature. It’s part of Theatre Royal Windsor’s On Air series, celebrating the golden age of radio plays performed live on stage.
This play is particularly well adapted to this style of delivery as we see two Alan Bennett’s on stage talking to one another, one being the actual Alan who lived through the times he’s relating and the other being the writer Alan viewing the events through the filter of creating art from his real life experience. It’s a compellingly engaging technique that makes you feel as if you’re inside Bennett’s mind.
Jenny Seagrove, as Miss Shepherd, captures our hearts with her endearing portrayal of this complex woman who is full of contradictions. She doesn’t see herself as homeless but won’t admit that her home is the eponymous van which ends up parked outside Bennett’s house for the last years of her life. She has delusions of grandeur – amusingly seeing herself as a strong candidate for leadership. Bennett’s consulted when she enquires:
“When I’m elected Prime Minister, would I have to move to no.10 or could I do it from the van?”
Alan then imagines an amusing vignette of cabinet ministers having to queue up outside the van to gain audience with their key decision maker, he wryly comments that this wasn’t unlike reality with Thatcher in power.
The pomposities of this bourgeois North London suburb are under the spot light when Miss Shepherd takes up residence. Alan’s neighbours seem ignorant of their privileges with their second homes and trips to the French wine regions and how these contrast with Shepherd’s poverty. They mock her, calling her ‘Stirling Moss’:
“Her slippered foot toys with the accelerator bringing an element of Brands Hatch to Sunday Morning”
She makes us squirm and feel uncomfortable, not least of all because of the repeated scatological references to her unpleasant toilet habits and her pervading smell of wee. When Miss Shepherd’s social worker refers to Alan as her ‘carer’ he takes umbrage, denying it strongly. He also denies that having her in his life has taught him anything; “You’re as likely to find me on a learning curve as on a ski slope!” he scoffs.
The play touches on so many elements of our society, our attitudes to ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ but not in a preachy way, it is gentler with us than that. Alan Bennett himself is unassuming and self-deprecating. He has to remind us at the end of the play that although it appears to focus solely on his interactions with the Lady in the Van, many other things were happening in his life outside of this relationship.
It was encouraging to see a wider cast on the stage – eight in total – still keeping some distance from each other. Once again, the auditorium was carefully managed to ensure social distancing and safety precautions were in place with all of the audience and front of house staff wearing masks. In these strange times, the value of experiencing a live performance is more appreciated than ever and this play doesn’t disappoint in providing funny and thought-provoking entertainment.