Though the title role was originated 20 years ago by Maggie Smith, who also interpreted her for the 2015 cinematic adaptation, Alan Bennett’s eponymous lady in the van could have been written for Miriam Margolyes. Funny, indomitable and with a manner of speaking the Queen’s English that turns any comment, no matter how banal or ridiculous, into oration, the British-Australian actress is the undoubted star of this first Melbourne Theatre Company outing for 2019; the compelling star around whom the rest of this otherwise cautious production’s cast orbit, like planets and moons of varying note.
Miriam Margolyes. Photograph © Jeff Busby
The Lady in the Van is based on the real-life relationship between Bennett, the renowned British writer whose other plays include The History Boys, and a vagrant who called herself Mary Shepherd. She parked her dilapidated van, which was also her home, outside his London house, then in the front yard at Bennett’s invitation – an invitation that the play suggests was extended partly through reluctant kindness, partly writerly curiosity.
There she remained for 15 years, until she died in her van in 1989, a malodorous, curmudgeonly and mysterious woman to the last. She may have been a novice nun and a talented pianist in her youth, and later fled the scene of a traffic accident and escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Nothing about her was certain in reality, and nor is it in The Lady in the Van, in which the character Alan Bennett openly suggests he has taken some artistic license.
There are two versions of him on stage: Alan Bennett 1, whose tolerance, even kindness toward the lady he always calls Miss Shepherd is partly driven by a shyness that rarely allows him to express his vexation about her ungrateful manner and random poop. Alan Bennett 2 is his authorial ego, dressed as if for a public appearance (Bennett was a regular on the BBC), and perhaps an older self looking back on those 15 years with detached fascination, unafraid to be a little unkind or loose with the truth.
The interior dialogue between the two Bennetts makes it clear that while The Lady in the Van is ostensibly about the title character, it’s at least as much concerned with the playwright: his guilt about the care for his mother, who succumbs to dementia during the play; the compartmentalisation between what might be considered his real self and the writer; and, in contrast to the larger-than-life Miss Shepherd, his timidity about living life.
James Millar, Daniel Frederiksen and Miriam Margolyes. Photograph © Jeff Busby
While those who like being confronted by theatre may find Bennett’s script too light, audiences who share his love of words will likely enjoy his clever, gently humorous dialogue that verges on the poetic in poignant moments. This production, helmed by MTC Associate Director Dean Bryant, would benefit from more pep, especially during the first half when the scenes between Bennett and Shepherd become repetitive.
Alicia Clements’ black street-scene set doesn’t offer much visual fascination during well over two hours of showtime – mostly various versions of vans, from cute models to a genuine Bedford, which sometimes rotate or glide by, plus a couple of moments when myriad streetlights appear from above, like a starry sky. A simple set for a simple story, which will be simply marvellous for those lovers of words, perhaps wearisome for others.
Many will find Margolyes’ performance alone reason enough to relish The Lady in the Van. Shuffling about in layers of eccentric, ever-changing clothes and hats, with eyes darting meaningfully and a voice even more so, she is extraordinary. Daniel Frederiksen brings a sincere charm to Alan Bennett 1, while James Millar’s Alan Bennett 2 is a little mischievous, yet also slightly more polished, the edges of the working class Yorkshire accent smoothed over by Oxford. Their interaction with each other and Margolyes is assured.
The rest of the cast are worked hard in multiple roles. The talent of MTC veteran Richard Piper is wasted playing four tiny characters, but showcases his versatility. Newcomer Claire Healy is delightful in her principal role as the sweet social worker who maintains her very English poise in the face or Bennett’s and Miss Shepherd’s sour responses. Dalip Sondhi and Fiona Choi verge on artificial as Bennett’s neighbours, while all Jillian Murray can do with her thankless main role is not overplay the mild humour of his mother’s dementia.
With a gently witty script and marvellous performance by Margolyes, The Lady in the Van is an enjoyable exploration of mental illness, introversion, extroversion and the art of writing itself. This production won’t win any awards (with the possible exception of Margolyes) but will likely win a few hearts.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Lady in the Van is at The Playhouse, Melbourne Arts Centre, until March 9