The Lady In The Van

When a play becomes a film and that film is populated by stars creating iconic performances it sets the bar rather high. So it was for Alan Bennet’s drama about Miss Sheppard, the lady in the actual van which ended up on his Camden home’s drive for around 16 years.

It takes a brave team to take on a work with this history but here the Sarah Mann Company have not only picked that battle but won it. Directors Nick Bartlett and Janette Eddisford have captured the heart of the play and created a production that stands out for its clean and elegant lines. Nathan Ariss and Paul Moriarty as the two Alans give a credible rendering of the playwright himself, all cardiganed restraint and doubt, their delivery and accents spot on as they deliver classic Bennett lines in a script that is never short of those classic lines. Pip Henderson embraces a clutch of supporting roles from yuppie neighbour to Bennet’s mother with incredible versatility and ease, so much so that one has to look twice to realise that it actually is her performing several parts and dealing with some lightening quick costume changes. And in each role the comedy comes from the heart, her yuppie is a lisping “modern” wife, her social worker a serious Scot with a head full of jargon and as Alan’s mother she ages incredibly delivering each request for knowledge of the toilet arrangements with northern charm.

Jack Christiansen takes on a similar number of extra roles and delivers them with equal skill from yuppy caring neighbour whose patience is not only tried by Miss Sheppard’s presence but also by the constant demand to live up to his wife and her exacting political correctness, and then on to various doctors.

The rest of the cast who take on the incidental roles are equally up to the job, all wearing different hats as the story progresses. A word too about designer Sean Chapman’s design, an effective but simplistic approach, the van a stage within the stage and the costumes perfectly natural so as not to detract, they simply work.

So finally on to Miss Sheppard herself, the malodorous lady in the van. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing for sure and one that requires the verbal dexterity of a real talent. Sarah Mann is that talent and she quite simply inhabits this role and in a way that even in the fresh and open space of BOAT stinks, and I say this not as an insult, no, Mann’s performance is so accomplished that one can virtually smell the urine and decay that become her life. This is a dramatic tour de force, each line, and the language is in many ways archaic and complex, is delivered with confident ease, never once drifting out of character. It’s hard to imagine that the actor is not a lady of a certain age from a particular class and era were speaking in this way was the norm. In short, this is beyond a five star performance.

Bennett in his inimitable style uses this true story to weave a comic but moving piece about caring and society’s response to mental health and the elderly and this company deliver it with class and confidence. But it is also a play about how as a writer he creates by taking his own experiences to produce his work and in doing so reveals his inner struggle with cannibalising those personal experiences.

Andrew Kay

26 May


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