It’s no secret that we are great fans of Alan Bennett’s work – from The History Boys and The Madness of King George to Smut and The Uncommon Reader. His absolute precision, his careful thought and trademark subversive humour make him irresistible irrespective of the format he chooses to write in.
Based on the author’s fraught dealings over 15 years with the eccentric, temperamental and elderly Miss Shepherd, the play begins when the semi-vagrant woman settles herself and her eponymous van (‘it’s only a pied-a-terre’) in front of his house. The year is 1974. Amazingly, she subsequently manages to insinuate herself into his life, eventually taking up ‘residence’ in his garden where she remains until her demise in 1989. The play is simultaneously a social commentary, a vivid portraiture, and a simple slice of life (something he is deceptively good at) but with a situation boarding on the absurd, almost Beckett-ian. Bennett even acknowledges this tie himself, referring in his introduction to the dubious character Underwood as being “a fugitive from Godot”.
In fact, Bennett’s introduction to the play too is recommended reading: from it, he elucidates his decision to split the lead character into two parts – the one, his long-suffering, reliable, worthier self (‘this being England, timid is good’); and the other, bitchier (‘nice is dull’), camper internalised self who represents the writer part of his psyche, A. Bennett 2. It is a stroke of genius and the banter between the two selves are as stimulating and valid as the conversations with the very Lady in the Van herself.
Despite claims of modesty that he did not ‘create’ Miss Shepherd, the dialogue is so suggestive, flamboyant and rich, there’s no denying that only an exceptionally talented writer would be able to recreate this cantankerous multi-faceted character as vigorously and credibly as he does. Her education, her idiosyncratic political and religious views, and her paranoid delusions of grandeur are all as much the source of amusement as it is for irritation (on his behalf) and sympathy (for them both).
Miss Shepherd Mr Bennett. What’s the manure doing?
A. Bennett I got it for the garden.
Miss Shepherd Well, could you move it or put up a notice saying that the smell is the manure. When I bring the van into the garden people may think the smell is me.
Bennett So you’ve decided to bring it in?
Miss Shepherd I hope I shall have enough room.
Bennett What for?
Miss Shepherd My things. I shall have to put some bags under it, clothes and suchlike, probably. If you don’t want all the bags lying about, you could get a tent.
Bennett A tent?
Miss Shepherd It need only be three foot high and by rights it ought to be erected in a meadow, only it would go by the van. Then there are these shatter-proof greenhouses.
Bennett Miss Shepherd. It’s only a tiny garden. You’re only going to be here for a month or two.
Miss Shepherd Or something could be done with old raincoats, possibly.
As the virtuous Alan Bennett patiently allows himself to be steam-rolled by Miss Shepherd, he is also navigating between the jealousy and senility of his mother and the heckling of his other half, A. Bennett 2 (‘…it seems that both at the northern and southern gates of my life stands a deluded woman (…) That appears to be my niche, apparently. Old ladies are my bread and butter.’) And yet I kept bursting into involuntary giggles, poor soul. Not something to save for when you want to feel virtuous about ‘reading a play’, this is an absolutely joy. Please, please read it before you see the film (…or go petition your council to put it on at the local theatre. Or something.)
The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett is published by Faber & Faber, 87 pages.