Review: The Lady In The Van ***

Lady in the Van
Lady in the Van
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At The Alhambra, Bradford

THE eternal contradictions of Alan Bennett never cease to intrigue audiences. What meek man makes himself the central character of a play? What other writer can boast a profile which is timid and unassuming yet unquestionably a high profile?

These questions are never more perplexing than watching, not one, but two versions of the playwright appear on stage to narrate the curious story of an eccentric old tramp who turned up on his doorstep and didn’t leave for 15 years.

This is, as Bennett, himself points out during the performance, a metaphor. Presenting twin Alans before us is neither an attempt to dispel nor heighten the contradictory nature of the man, it merely serves to acknowledge it.

To that end we are supplied with two subtly different men – one slightly crotchety and cynical, the other more open-minded and at ease. Said lady in the van actually plays third fiddle here.

Nichola McAuliffe is superb in a role which requires subtle delivery and precise comic timing. This Miss Shepherd comes courtesy of a natural performance which flicks from solemnity to hilarity without any awkward gear changes along the way.

She remains a figure who prompts revulsion and endearment. Presumably we are expected to understand her at the point of curtain down, but we are never fully enlightened at all. This owes more to the play than anything else. The Lady in the Van is a meander which simply chronicles a strand of Bennett’s life. It’s a snapshot, not really an explanation.

Nor is it a comprehensive timeline from childhood to seniority, it isn’t even a cross-section of the writer’s middle age. “Other stuff happened,” points out one of the Bennetts at the end. Did it really require a play running to 150 minutes then? Probably not. The first half of the production ought to be shrunk as the build-up is far too slow to keep a firm grasp on an audience’s attention.

Paul Kemp and James Holmes provide two notably different representations of Bennett through two exceptionally well-judged performances. This is crucial since this play is more about the artist than his aged, incontinent, belligerent muse.

Although his hallmark writing style is blatant, this is a very different prospect to exhilarating hits like The History Boys. Less about the lady in the van than the two men in the house, this is more of a choice production for die-hard fans of Bennett.

To Saturday, The Alhambra, Morley Street, Bradford, 7.30pm, Sat mat 2.30pm, £10.50 to £24. Tel. 01274 432000,

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