I read this story many years ago, as an avid fan of anything Alan Bennett produces, and was prepared for this production to disappoint. But it was truly magnificent.
Not least because there are two Alan Bennetts in this retelling of the story; the one who writes, and the one who does the living. Alex Jennings does an excellent impersonation of Alan Bennett twice over, as Alan the wordsmith and Alan the man, conversing sarcastically with himself in his front room.
Their constant interplay reveals much about Bennett’s own anxieties, frustrations and impatience with what he thinks is his own boring life, compared to Miss Shepherd’s. With a parallel story about the declining health and mental state of Bennett’s own mother and Bennett’s lack of success in attracting and keeping a partner – mainly because of the smells, faecal matter, rubbish and withering looks his lady in the van generates - it is a tale that, as one of the Alan Bennetts observes wryly, might be judged as being ‘Far too much about shit.’
We are gently poked, prodded and amused as Bennett reveals the lifelong mysteries of the elderly Miss Shepherd and her vans. The first is a grey embattled vehicle, the second a more modern blue and white machine, and then there is a little red Reliant Robin three wheeler. These she paints with happy abandon, by hand, in a sort of daffodil yellow referred to as ‘Mimosa’ and in a patriotic gesture decorates the lot with Union Jacks.
Throughout, Miss Shepherd displays an indomitable life force; the glee of a small child as she persuades Bennett to push her wheelchair to the top of road then gaily slaloms down using her walking sticks to gain speed, cackling and grinning from ear to ear. Intensely human, she goes on a fairground ride, eats a tall ice cream, then pauses for silent tears and thought in a church hall where a pianist performs on a creaky piano.
But why does this derelict and stinking old lady with rheumy eyes, more wrinkles than a withered nylon stocking speak perfect French? What is it about music that sends her screaming ‘I’m a sick woman’ to frighten away children playing instruments in the street? Who is the man who regularly bangs on her van in the night until she pays him money? Why does she pray feverishly, almost demented with guilt and demand so many absolutions from the local priest that he tells her, "It’s not like a bus pass, an absolution does not run out…."
There is absolutely no doubt in who the star of this movie is, for Maggie Smith, reprising the role she played in the original stage production in 1999, as well as a radio version performed in 2009, acts with every muscle and breath, with a staggering range of expressions and emotions. Her eyes are as fierce as any warrior one minute, then out of focus, red rimmed and yellow the next as she stares into the past. Somehow, she makes you feel her creaky joints, her aching back, her cold misery. Yet you cannot but stand back and admire her battling spirit, her arch manipulation of Alan Bennett as she is in turn exasperating, vulnerable and a supreme master of bitingly sarcastic one liners "I’m not a beggar, I’m self-employed!"
When finally she is released from squalid decay into the heavens and the arms of God, triumphant in her final ascension you feel like cheering – and crying.
She's been tipped for an Oscar already, so don't miss Maggie Smith's performance in The Lady in the Van - now showing at FACT.