When a homeless woman living in a van parked up outside British playwright Alan Bennett’s Camden home in the early 1970s he probably had little idea that she would go on to inspire him to write a stage play, a novel, a BBC Radio 4 play, and a feature film about the experience. But the wacky Miss Mary Shepherd (played here by the magnificent Miriam Margolyes) had remarkable powers of persuasion over the man, changing the direction of both their lives.
Despite her cantankerous nature, suspicious behaviour and complete lack of personal hygiene, along with the accompanying odour that brings, Miss Shepherd manages to develop enough of a friendship, albeit strained, with the timid writer to convince him to allow her to park the titular van in his driveway for a proposed three months. Due to the council enforcing ‘no parking’ on the street, Bennett’s front yard becomes her new, short-term, smelly home. The writer is aggravated by his squatter’s demanding behaviour, but has enough humanity to want to help her improve her circumstances. Yet the woman refuses all attempts at charity, she’s mysterious about her past, and occasional visitors give the impression that she’s potentially on the run from something.
It’s a fascinating relationship, made more interesting by Bennett representing himself twice on stage. One being his real, or literal, self (Daniel Frederiksen) and the other being his sub-conscious, or writer self (James Millar). This allows us to hear both his irritated external conversations with Miss Shepherd and inner thoughts of amusement at how this maddening woman is imposing on his life. Inner monologues become conversations and arguments as he vents both his frustration and bemusement.
The trajectory of this odd couple’s relationship is relatively predictable, but the crux of this tale is what Miss Shepherd teaches Mr Bennett about himself, his insecurities and his difficult relationship with his mother who’s is slowly succumbing to dementia. This is a gentle comedy that could perhaps been seen as Bennett congratulating himself for his benevolence, but is thankfully more thoughtful than that. It’s proof that we can all learn something from those who cross our paths if we allow them to enter our lives more openly, even when they might be suffering from mental illness as Miss Shepherd undoubtedly was.
Margolyes’ reputation for inimitable stage presence well and truly precedes her – no doubt the reason for an early announcement of a season extension – and she certainly does not disappoint when it comes to owning the stage. The way she can squeeze all the succulent juice out of each and every piece of Bennett’s dialogue makes this production all the more delicious to watch. This role is a gift and Margolyes doesn’t look the horse in the mouth.
While her performance would be reason enough to buy a ticket to this show, it’s enriched by beautifully measured performances by both Frederiksen and Millar. The pair do an excellent job of playing two facets of the same man, matching each other’s accents and body language with precision – if only they both parted their hair on the same side! Director Dean Bryant leaves Millar’s Bennett a bit too passive and inactive at times, losing his purpose in some moments, however overall the directorial balance of this production is comfortably paced and perfectly timed for the comedy.
Lighting design by Matt Scott creates lovely atmospherics, although it has to overcome some frustratingly dazzling reflections on the van windows. That atmosphere is bolstered by Mathew Frank’s charming compositions that feel filmic in their elegant melodies. Alicia Clements’ set design is perhaps a bit simple and abstract, but it does contain some magical elements that are quite enchanting. Costumes, also by Clements are well thought out and appropriate for the leads, however the ensemble feel a bit sartorially unloved.
The ensemble of five perform a number of smaller roles, some more thankless than others, but of the significant cameos, Jillian Murphy as Bennett’s Mam brings a beautiful sadness to the character, Dalip Sondhi nails the comedy as needling neighbour Rufus, while Richard Piper is woefully wasted as the dodgy debt collector Underwood amongst a number of other bit parts.
As is often the case with Alan Bennett’s plays, this story feels longer than it needs to be and certainly drags its heels towards the ending, but that doesn’t stop it from being thoroughly entertaining for the most part. That combined with a virtuoso performance by Margolyes makes this the most easily recommendable show in town – if you can get a ticket that is.
Images: Jeff Busby