Melissa Blease reviews The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 2 September

What would you do if an eccentric, irascible and far-from-hygienic old lady, obsessed with God and onions and never quite making it clear how or where she uses a toilet, drove her battered old van into the driveway of your house and stayed put there for almost 15 years? If you’re Alan Bennett, the answer to that question is obvious: you write about the experience.

Although it has to be said that writing about his life with Miss Shepherd (or whatever her real name turned out to be) didn’t come as easily to Mr Bennett as the beautifully-constructed, smooth-flowing, epigrammatic narrative that eventually summarised the ordeal suggests.

At the time of Miss Shepherd’s occupation of his garden, Bennett was attempting to come to terms with the onset of his mother’s dementia, and the practical and emotional turmoil that came with it. Little wonder, then, that the fleeting appearances from Bennett’s mum that punctuate the central story make the issues raised regarding the rather loathsome incumbent herself even more poignant; from whispered comments around me, it was clear that I wasn’t the only person in the audience who could relate to Bennett’s parental dilemma.

As for the ‘care’ of Miss Shepherd, however, I doubt that very many of us would claim to know how we’d react to such a predicament. Did Bennett allow Miss Shepherd to live alongside him in an effort to assuage and perhaps ease feelings of guilt regarding his own mother? While even Bennett himself may not be sure of the motivations that drove him to accommodate Miss Shepherd’s whims, she clearly affected him very deeply on many levels, eventually inspiring him to share the story in a way that is totally, quintessentially Bennett: gently, with humour and pathos, and the odd, only-too-human smatterings of anger and exasperation thrown in where necessary.

Fans of a man who is arguably one of British literature’s national treasures will take great delight in the fact that we get two Bennetts for the price of one in this production: the academic, objective writer (James Northcote) and the increasingly frustrated bachelor who wonders why his day-to-day life has been turned upside down so dramatically (Sam Alexander).

James Northcote as Alan Bennett, Sara Kestelman as Miss Shepherd and Sam Alexander as
Alan Bennett in The Lady in the Van

Between them, Northcote and Alexander weave a thoughtful, sensitive, well-rounded portrayal of the narrator’s various conundrums and conflicts as the real-life drama unfolds, akin to a cosier, more accessible theatrical version of experimental art duo Gilbert and George.

Meanwhile, Sara Kestelman as Mary Shepherd pokes, nudges and eventually claws her way under the double-Bennett’s skin like a flea attacking a brand new host (a doubly-appropriate metaphor, given both her parasitic nature and casual disregard for hygiene): fascinating but foul, aberrant and abhorrent yet curiously charismatic, she’s the ultimate lodger from hell… and a gift to the playwright.

One of the Bennetts may refer to Miss Shepherd at one point as a “bigoted, blinkered, cantankerous, devious, unforgiving, self-serving, rank, rude, car-mad cow, which is to say nothing of her flying faeces and her ability to extrude from her withered buttocks turds of such force that they land a yard from the back of the van and their presumed point of exit” (when riled, Bennett is rarely backwards in coming forward about what he really thinks), but despite such rants, it’s clear that she was also something of an unlikely muse.

Regardless of the compelling subject matter, however, this atypical domestic drama is not a fast-paced affair. The story took its time reaching the stage (Bennett first published the story as an essay in 1989 before turning it into a full-length book the following year, a stage play in 1999, a radio play in 2009 and then, of course, a critically-acclaimed big screen version starring Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd in 2015).

And this production itself is similarly unhurried, focusing more on small, emotional details rather than attention-grabbing scenes, while occasional appearances from Bennett’s neighbours – included to represent the confused reactions of the ‘progressive’ arty liberals responsible for the gentrification of a north London street – at times only serve as filler to move one scene to the next.

But while it may take a little time to reach its denouement, none of the meandering journey along the way is wasted. The characters are beautifully observed throughout, the set is understatedly agile (the van itself enjoys a rather magical spotlight moment towards the end of the play), and the script as uniquely satisfying as only a Bennett work of art can be.

Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk

Main image: Sara Kestelman as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van. Photo credit: Nobby Clark