The Stirling Community Theatre was filled to capacity for the opening night of new Stirling Players’ production The Lady in the Van.
Based on Alan Bennett’s diaries, the play tells the true story of how the award-winning British playwright offered Miss Shepherd a place to park the van in which she lived. He thought she’d be in his London yard for a few months when the offer was made in 1974, but she stayed until she died in 1989.
Bennett first meets Shepherd when she begins to park her van in front of houses on his street, moving ever closer to his home as neighbours find ways of ousting her. Witness to her harassment at the hands of local hoodlums, police and council workers, he finally offers her sanctuary. People call him a saint, but he disagrees – the initial invitation is made out of guilt, and then he allows her to stay because he can’t tell her to go.
The play tells the story of the unusual relationship between Bennett and Shepherd, a character of the type usually reserved for fiction. Renowned for her multifarious odour – urine camouflaged by the scent of lavender talcum powder – and for her rants verging on insanity (at one point she petitions for a taller Pope), this woman is as frustrating and endearing as she is funny.
Directed by Dave Simms, the Stirling Players put on a, aherm, sterling performance. The cast is excellent, especially the three main actors: Lee Cook, Tim Edhouse and Jill Morrell. Cook and Edhouse both play Alan Bennett , with one the narrator recalling the story, and the other “in” the play. The device of two Alans, while unusual, works well and allows the Jiminy Cricket-type narrator to express frustration at the situation in which he finds himself. Jill Morrell is so believable as the itinerant van lady that she brings to mind another great lady of the stage, Ruth Cracknel.
This probably isn’t a production for younger people, especially in terms of the issues it deals with: ageing parents in need of full-time care, the challenges of ageing yourself and how one continues to survive in this world, and the obligations and guilt faced by carers. There’s not much in the way of plot, but it is an excellent character study.
The Lady in the Van is funny in parts, and moving throughout. If you enjoy memoir-style entertainment, you’ll get a lot out of this excellently performed stage production.
The Stirling Players are presenting the play at the Stirling Community Theatre on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until October 19.
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