For a man widely regarded as Britain’s best-loved living playwright, Alan Bennett sure does have a fixation with old ladies.
It’s a perception Bennett himself laments in The Lady in the Van. He claims he’d much rather be writing about spies.
His preoccupation is understandable, though, given his struggling mother (Gwen Taylor) up north and the irascible old bag, Mary Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith), camped out in his driveway at the verdant 23 Gloucester Crescent, Camden. Well, not camped per se: from 1973 on, the eponymous lady passed fifteen years holed up in a succession of hand-painted canary yellow vehicles, with not so much as a word of thanks to her unassuming benefactor.
As twin Bennetts carries out a protracted conversation (one does the living, the other the writing) about creative license, Mrs. Shepherd — as she is generally known — does her business in plastic bags and terrorizes the neighborhood children who dare to play music in the street. With her “odoriferous concerto” and a special dispensation from the Virgin Mary, she’s certainly not the most agreeable figure to have permanently situated outside your study.
The neighbors, including a snobby Roger Allam and reliably charming Frances de la Tour, put up her out of a lightly condescending sense of charity. There’s none of that from Bennett himself, who, portrayed as a permissive, faintly arch soul by Bennett surrogate Alex Jennings, claims only to put up with her out of timidity — he steadfastly refuses to let the care workers characterize it as kindness.
While Bennett and Mrs. Shepherd’s relationship is at the core of The Lady in the Van, Nicholas Hytner’s neatly staged little adaptation finds time for a parade of familiar faces: Stephen Campbell Moore appears as a kindly doctor, Samuel Anderson (Doctor Who) as a Jehovah’s Witness — “Try the van”. Indeed, almost all The History Boys make an appearance, from Samuel Barnett with a comb-over to Russell Tovey as a rent boy.
It’s easy to understand the loyalty Bennet inspires — and clearly repays. His dialogue is free-flowing, witty and charming, and Smith’s performance here combines down-on-her-luck Dowager Countess prickliness and Mr. Bean bewilderment. She’s certainly lived a life, for better and worse, and it’s marvelous.
Things get a touch too meta and uplifting in the film’s final moments but, for the most part, The Lady in the Van is a chip
in the sugar off the old Bennett block.