England is famous for its eccentrics, some charming, some not. Take Miss Shepherd, a sort of bag woman who peddled her pamphlets and lived in a series of vans parked for her last fifteen years on the street outside Alan Bennett’s home or, with his permission, in his garden. She wore outlandish clothes and was reclusive but not opposed to publicity, with her van an unholy, foul-smelling mess. A pious Catholic, she had unsuccessfully tried to become a nun. Despite some money squirreled away, she was successfully on the dole. Her conversation was quirky, often delusional; she wrote self-important letters to important people. In his book Writing Home, Bennett devotes some 35 pages to “The Lady in the Van.” Why did he put up with her, even performing odd services for her? Because he, too, is an eccentric.
Posthumously, it emerges that Miss S., a talented pianist, had studied with Alfred Cortot, who foresaw a concert career for her. Bennett has turned this into a play, The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith, and the hit of London. The author claims in the program that almost all of it is fact, though it contains a good deal not in the original memoir. But he also lists several fictional elements, and we get two Alan Bennetts: the one of the time he met Miss S. and the one of today. The former, though he doesn’t much resemble him, is neatly played by Nicholas Farrell; the latter, looking just right, is done more routinely by Kevin McNally.
The duplication is a canny way of avoiding a monologuizing narrator, but the various colloquies gradually smack of cuteness and make us lose track of the time: Is this happening now or then? Was that actually said, or is it a current afterthought? Maggie Smith was heralded as being really different as Miss S., but this by now very mannered actress could no more be two Maggie Smiths than Bennett could be two Bennetts for real. Smith fans will relish her shtick; others may feel that half a Maggie Smith would amply suffice.
Into his sizable cast, Bennett introduces his mother. Exquisitely played by Elizabeth Bradley, Mam is rather peculiar, too, and there are implied parallels and contrasts between the real mother and what we may regard as the adoptive one. Otherwise, despite some funny bits, the show is rather humdrum, and one wonders why such a slick director as Nicholas Hytner picked a generally undistinguished set of actors. The production is well designed by Mark Thompson and jazzily lighted by Hugh Vanstone, but the two haunting questions – what made Miss S. what she was and why A.B. adopted her – remain a trifle too unanswered.