Father, would you hear my Confession please. It’s been 15 months since my last visit to the Oxford Playhouse. Last time we went, the staff were very offhand, signage was poor and it all felt a bit substandard. Great news is that it’s back to its former welcoming self, with polite and friendly front of house staff, and a clean and bright foyer that actually makes it feel bigger than it really is. They still don’t have a sign up saying which side of the auditorium you should enter to get closer to your seats, and you have to rely on the ushers to point you in the right direction, but at least it didn’t cause the same confusion as last time. And Father, you might enjoy the play, it’s got quite a lot of Catholic references.
For several years Alan Bennett’s garden became the home to the Lady in the Van – Miss Shepherd, who apparently lived in the van, and several other vehicles besides, for many years. A combination of her self-confidence, his soft-heartedness and a rather Zen acceptance that This Was How It Was Going To Be created this surreal neighbourly situation. And the presentation of the story in this play is pretty surreal too.
Alan Bennett is played by two actors, who simultaneously provide two changing aspects of his personality. This could be Bennett the talker and Bennett the thinker; Bennett’s actions and Bennett’s conscience; later on in the play it becomes Bennett the neighbour and Bennett the writer. This sounds a bit confusing but actually it works effortlessly well. Miss Shepherd’s conversation drifts from flights of fancy to the banal, and her larger-than-life character fits well into this surreal environment. Towards the end of the play she gets even more surreal, but I won’t spoil it for you. There is also a shadowy figure, who comes knocking at her door at odd intervals, using threatening obscenities – which seem a little out of place – and which doesn’t get explained until right at the end (and only then just).
The best aspect of this production is that there are some excellent performances. Nichola McAuliffe is Miss Shepherd and she is every inch the feisty, cheeky, emotional character you would expect her to be. Nichola McAuliffe always brings huge gusto and verve to every part she plays and in this role she can be as brash, bold, wily and beguiling as she likes. You can always be assured of vocal clarity with Miss McAuliffe. Nobody sleeps while she’s on. It was because she was in the cast that we decided to see this play. She’s great. She’s one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites.
The two Alans were Paul Kemp and James Holmes and they gave very credible presentations of someone who the general public probably feels they know inside out – that must be a hard task in itself. I thought James Holmes in particular caught Bennett’s genteel ironies especially well. The story takes place at a time in Bennett’s life when he was also dealing with the dwindling health of his mother, and that was very sympathetically put forward. They got a huge reception from the audience at curtain call.
Two other performances I would single out are Tina Gambe, in the role of the social worker, who has some fantastically funny lines as she subtly imbues Bennett with the role of carer; and Martin Wimbush as the scary threatening figure, if for no other reason than he is the original Mr Crisparkle (without the H) from Edwin Drood – and therefore one of my favourites.
Bennett seems to like to put a “big event” in his plays. When we saw “Enjoy” a few years ago (a dreadfully overrated play I thought), the big visual impact moment came when the walls of the house were flattened out and the acting area became the whole stage – surrealism again. In “Lady in the Van” a similar moment comes when Miss Shepherd’s campervan is chained up and slowly raised into the sky. It sparked a round of applause from the audience. I always find it slightly depressing when something like that receives that level of appreciation – it’s just a device; something incidental to the story, the writing, the characterisation, the drama.
And that it the main problem with this play – I didn’t feel as though it had a lot going on in the Drama Department. It’s as though – much as Miss Shepherd herself points out – Alan Bennett could not decide whether the play was about Miss Shepherd or Alan Bennett. Apart from the fact that she lived in his garden, in reality their paths didn’t seem to cross much. He obviously decided it would be about both, but I’m not sure it worked.
I’ve done a Venn Diagram to show the problem. Bear with me, I’m no graphic designer. The black bit in the middle shows where the lives of the two characters cross, and that’s basically the drama of the play. And as you can see, it’s only a small percentage of their existences. The white unshaded bits might have made for a more focussed play. In addition to this, I have to say there were a few dreary speeches as well. Miss McAuliffe did her best to maintain the energy of the play at those times but it was an uphill struggle. So whilst it’s a good production, and with some excellent performances, as a whole I found it curiously unsatisfying.
Also, please spare some sympathy for people sitting in the first few rows. They could hardly have seen a thing. The stage is very high – I presume because there has to be a revolving circle to the stage floor so that Miss Shepherd’s vehicle can swing around. I’m guessing the Oxford Playhouse doesn’t have a revolving stage, so they had to build it in on top. Bear this in mind if you’re going to see it in Harrogate or Bradford in the final weeks of the tour.