Bennett at his brilliant best

EVENT: The Lady in the Van

VENUE: Hull Truck Theatre

DATES: Until 7 May

REVIEW BY: Mike Brown

THE sight of the wild-eyed, eccentric Miss Shepherd forcing a dank, stinking camper van into Alan Bennett’s front garden caused a conflict between two sides of his character - the curious, inquisitive inner writer, and the reserved good neighbour.

These two conflicting voices are examined skilfully in Hull Truck Theatre’s production of Bennett’s ‘The Lady in the Van’.

Paul Kemp plays one of the Bennetts, that of his timid, embarrassed, caring side who puts up with Miss Shepherd’s growing demands with increasing exasperation.

James Holmes plays the second Bennett, the older voice of the calculating writer and narrator made a character in his own story, who sees nothing wrong with mixing fact with fiction to make “the story better”, interacting only with Kemp’s Bennett while on stage.

Dressed identically, the two share the stage for nearly the whole performance - either sitting at Bennett’s desk at the front of a sparse set, or choking at the rancid smell of Miss Shepherd’s assorted decrepid vehicles - helping the audience understand Bennett’s struggle to admit his feelings for, and write about the old lady.

While the two Bennetts are impressive, Nichola McAuliffe steals the show as Miss Shepherd.

On one hand confused, frail and destitute, and on the other manipulative, witty and argumentative, her comedic refrain “possibly” brought a smile every time it was delivered.

From her first appearance picking at a banana rescued from a bin and selling pencils on the kerb, to the final scenes when she becomes more frail, McAuliffe captures the warm humour of Bennett’s work while hinting at a darker side to a character whose talent and passion for music was beaten away by the strictness of a convent.

Along with the strong acting performances, the clever set design showing the outside wall of Bennett’s house and the filthy vehicles cluttering the garden, plus intelligent light and sound design and excellent direction from Sarah Esdaile, this made ‘The Lady in the Van’ a definite winner.