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Venue: The Drama Barn
Alan Bennett's 'The Lady in the Van' revolves around the singular Miss Shepherd, who between 1974-89, set herself up on the driveway outside Bennet's London home, and lived in her van. What started as a gesture of goodwill, only meant to last a couple of months, turned into a fifteen year stretch. Directed by Joe McNeice, the Drama Society's latest offering is a charming musing on eccentricities that have vanished in our modern age.
With two actors taking on the role of Bennett as narrator (one younger, one older), there was every chance this could have slipped into hackneyed pastiche. I wondered in the first seconds whether Christian Loveless, (older Bennett), would be able to catch that agreeable Leeds warble, tempered with rock hard wit, so irresistibly synonymous with Bennett himself? Well, reader, he did - admirably. Loveless' imperious ease melded seamlessly with Matt Spalding's young Bennett. Spalding nailed the accent just as superbly and his moments of intelligent exasperation and deadpan humour were a joy to watch. The interactions between the two Bennetts were the most fluid instances in the play, offering a whimsical meta-theatrical counterpoint to the quaint realism, and highlighting Bennett's skill with words.
Despite that, 'The Lady in the Van' is one of Bennett's weaker offerings. Take the Lady; Hannah Froggett clearly put a huge amount of thought and work into her role, injecting endearing nuttiness and powerful determination. However, a certain subtle sadness and true frailty was lacking and it was difficult to elicit much sympathy for this irascible old lady. This brings the real sticking of the play to bear. Is Bennett just trying to spin the story for a laugh, or does he really want to highlight the plight of a woman, unwilling to toe the societal line and plagued by poverty? This creates a somewhat strained dichotomy between light-hearted humour and serious drama concerning a real woman's troubled and sad existence. In the recent film, the inimitable Maggie Smith managed to elevate the script above these problems. But she's one of the most accomplished actresses of the 20th century. Whilst classic Bennett turns of phrase are reliably delicious, and the production team and actors delivered a strong, thoughtful play, it is not enough to overcome an overly-long script that's little more than amusing instances cobbled together.
That's not to negate this production's strengths; some points were fantastic. The thrillingly three-dimensional set separated and fashioned the back of the stage into the front of Bennett's home, with the older Bennett mainly sitting inside, and austerely addressing the audience through the window. With brickwork details and tufts of scrubby greenery, the set succeeded both aesthetically and dramatically, with well-considered lighting adding a fundamental ingredient. Similarly, with titular emphasis placed on the van, it had to deliver and Dan Wade as 'Van Co-Ordinator' certainly merits praise. The van was clever; one half the solid outside, and when turned around we saw the inside of the Lady's squalid quarters. The audience were audibly impressed and all the design aspects exceeded the general constraints of student productions. The only sticking point was the Lady's costume; despite two references to her 'nightdress', the decision to dress her in baggy shorts seems rather contrary. An old nightdress could potentially have added a bit of the lacking frailty.
It's a shame that Bennett's theatrical vehicle is not as strong as it could be. The cast and crew had ample drive, but the 'The Lady in the Van' runs out of fuel after the interval. A cosy evening, a strong production, but not unmissable.