The show is directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Mark Thompson who have both worked on Bennett's "The Madness of King George".
The play is based on the true story of Miss Shepherd, an old 'mad' crone, who lived in a Bedford van parked on Bennett's street in Camden. She would be moved along the street because the residents complained when she parked outside their house. When she finally reached Bennett's house the council in exasperation painted double yellow lines (No Parking) on the road. Alan Bennett took pity on her and agreed to allow her to park the van in his garden for a couple of months. However, she ended up staying in his garden for 15 years until she died. The story centres on their extraordinary relationship, which for Bennett was a source of intrigue, frustration and compassion.
Alan Bennett has skilfully used this strange event to create a play that reveals many insights in to the mind of Bennett himself. His strained relationships with his mother who was becoming senile, his insecurities and his sexual identity.
Maggie Smith is one of my favourite actresses as well as the favourite of many others. This play gives her the opportunity to reinforce her standing as Britain's number one stage actress. Her performance, as Miss Shepherd', alone is enough to go and see this play. She has a 'stinging' delivery and superb facial expressions. After all, playing a mean, eccentric, sharp tongue tramp is right up Maggie's street! The costume and make-up department has done a fantastic job on Miss Smith, making her almost unrecognisable giving her a crumbed up dirty face, bulging eyes, and wearing a black helmet, and a dirty brown overcoat.
Nicholas Farrell plays the younger Alan Bennett and Kevin McNally plays the older Bennett. McNally, who actually looks just like Bennett, serves as the narrator, and Farrell plays the Bennett that actually communicates with Miss Shepherd. It is cleverly done and works brilliantly with both Bennett's also communicating with each other as to why and how the series of events occur. Both perform well, but McNally is the most convincing.
The show has taken the West End by storm and has received great reviews from most of the popular press… JOHN PETER of THE SUNDAY TIMES says it is one of the West End's, "saddest, funniest and most distinguished offerings for years." CHARLES SPENCER of TH DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This is, without doubt, the best new play of the year." MICHAEL BILLINGTON of THE GUARDIAN says of Maggie Smith's performance, "Making you like and dislike the character much as Bennett himself did, it is a performance that arouses a complex compassion." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of TH TIMES says, " Enjoy it I emphatically did." However, NICHOLAS DE JONGH of the EVENING STANDARD was not overly impressed with the play, but was impressed with Maggie Smith saying, "As the genteel tramp, Miss Shepherd… Dame Maggie displays the trappings of down-at-heel eccentricity with imperious grandeur. Her performance is the evening's saving grace.
"The Lady In The Van" lasts two and half-hours and is full of goodies. If you are not a Bennett or Smith fan then you may find the play a little too long. On the other hand, Bennett fans will love this play, Smith fans will love this play and if you are fans of both then it is totally unmissable.
Fans of Alan Bennett, and those just discovering him too, will love this comedy about the woman who moved her van into the front garden of Bennett's house in Camden, and then stayed there for 15 years!
It sounds rather odd but two actors, Kevin McNally and Nicholas Farrell, both play Bennett giving the most believable performances, with superb timing too! This is such a clever move as it means we do not have the restrictions of a series of monologues but rather a lively dialogue between the 'two halves' of Bennett himself!
Maggie Smith plays the cantankerous old lady of the van, given every opportunity to be as dotty and rude as any actress could ever wish to be on stage!
Bennett does make the assumption that his audience are sufficiently 'in the know' about literary figures and therefore able to appreciate the one liners which refer to Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and the like and I know that some members of the audience were a bit put off by this. Though, with enough wonderful, both funny and rather sad, observations made in almost every line, it really does not detract from the play as a whole.
I saw a preview performance and my only slight moan would be that it really was a bit too long, nearly 3 hours in total. The trouble with trying to edit the play would be that no matter what you cut, you would be losing some great lines as there isn't really a lengthy, boring bit which could easily be cut out without a loss! The cut would have to be arbitrary..... but then can you get too much of a good thing!
My one, most likely in vain, hope is that the actors playing the two versions of Bennett get more of the good publicity than Dame Maggie, as they truly do deserve it. I know that Maggie Smith tends to overshadow a play, more for her personality than for her actual performance, but I do think any actress worth her salt could have made a good job of this role!