The moving story of a writer and the woman who wouldn’t go

Steve Taplin as Alan Bennett and Jenni Horne as Miss Shepherd in the Gallery Players production of L

Steve Taplin as Alan Bennett and Jenni Horne as Miss Shepherd in the Gallery Players production of Lady in the Van Photo: Olly Wood - Credit: Archant

“If the film and play have a point it is about fairness, tolerance and however grudgingly, helping the less fortunate. “ Alan Bennett

Lady in the Van by The Gallery Players, New Wolsey Theatre July 25 to 27

The book, play and film of the Lady in the Van was developed by Alan Bennett from his memoirs; an autobiographical insight into an awkward period of Bennett's life 40 years ago.

A squatter camped in a van in Bennett's drive in suburban London, initially for three months and eventually for 15 years, was hardly an ideal scenario for an author of some reputation.

Many in the audience may have seen the film; indeed it was recently screened by the BBC, and were no doubt curious about how it would transfer across mediums. We were not disappointed.

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As soon as our seats were taken at the New Wolsey Theatre, we were captivated by the multifunctional set which drew us firmly into its domain; not only Alan Bennett's study in his home in Camden with well stuffed comfortable sofas, and a manual typewriter with a nostalgic tap tap,

it was a nunnery, as well as giving pride of place to a bright yellow and battered Bedford van which moved and functioned from the outset. A screen provided us with the external views of street, underground station and Crucifix on the wall of the nunnery.

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A fabulous vehicle (in more ways than one) for a slightly more mature female lead, this play is driven skilfully in the hands of Jenni Horn as Miss Shepherd, magnificent as the character played by Maggie Smith in the west end play and the film.

Jenni handled the enormous task of developing the eccentric and intelligent character, engendering disgust and at the same time respect and even affection from the dual Alan Bennetts and other characters that circled in her orbit.

The dual persona of Bennett, the functional and interacting side, and the writer and creator, as played by the same actor in the film, were masterfully handled in this production, by two excellent actors, Steve Taplin and Darren Nunn.

Both interpreted their parts individually but with unity, and with great sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of the Yorkshireman.

His relationship with his mother, played delightfully by Maggie Mudd, and his guilt about her eventual move to a care home, was placed in stark relief against the responsibility he inherited for Miss Shepherd, which was frequently and patronisingly emphasised by the social worker, played convincingly by Petra Risbridger.

Upwardly mobile and irritatingly enthusiastic neighbours Rufus and Pauline were in the experienced hands of seasoned performers Phil Cory and Sam Horsfield and a range of cameo roles allowed other regular players in Gallery cast lists to have some fun and experimentation with their characterisation.

The Lady in the Van has many references that are as relevant now as when It was set, during the Thatcher years. At a time of austerity and political uncertainty the thought that an eccentric like Miss Shepherd may one day realise her dream of becoming prime minister, is not as far fetched as it may have seemed.

Congratulations to director Steve Woodridge and his team for a sensitive and polished production.

And to an unseen star; the bedraggled Bedford van and highly imaginative staging is the brainchild of set designer and creator Dave Borthwick, whose reputation for creative genius for Gallery Players is legendary.

On a hot, stormy night with thunderous interruptions and mobile phones ringing, the Gallery Players actors kept their cool, and provided us with a beautifully observed and heartwarming production with the company's customary professionalism.

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