Review: The Lady in the Van (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, April 14)

PLAYING within a play – Alan Bennett has fun teasing the audience with characters drawn from real life (including two versions of himself) in The Lady in the Van, beginning a 40th anniversary tour for the Hull Truck Company at Brighton.

Bennett employs his expected wit and storytelling to relate the ‘true’ tale of the eccentric former novice nun and would-be concert pianist who moved into his Camden drive and garden for 15 years, with a succession of dilapidated Bedford vans, disgusting habits, and terrible smells.

The comic blends with pathos and sharp social comment in an odd play about odd couples – whether that be the relationship between the playwright and his mother, the playwright and the batty tramp, or even the playwright and the playwright.

The two Bennetts show the writer’s suspicion and intolerance, as well as kindness and understanding, although the double act never quite fully explains the process of biographical drama becoming stage fiction. Sean McKenzie, who plays the younger Bennett, and Paul Kemp as the older, contemporary Bennett, are both pleasing though never manage to capture the poetic lyricism of the writer, relying instead on imitating the dry Leeds wit without the depth of character.

Nichola McAuliffe, always such a strong and striking stage performer, acts with every physical and vocal muscle, and is captivating and in complete control as the amiable eccentric, well-meaning protester, bewildered old lady, and filthy wanderer Miss Shepherd, making the character lovable and mysterious and there is a real sense of Bennett’s tolerance of her keeping her mind the right side of gaga.

Good performances from the rest of the cast too, especially Karen Traynor and Dale Rapley as the fairly open-minded neighbours and Sophie Robinson as an irritating social worker.

Director Sarah Esdaile has done a fine job with the play, which started life as bitter sweet diary entries and has also been a short story and radio play. The story is thin, more a series of incidents and comments, and it never quite succeeds in being as much about the writer as the cantankerous tenant, but there is enough poignancy and humour to make for an enjoyable entertainment.

David Guest