The Lady in the Van theatre review (Playhouse, Melbourne)

The smell is sweet with urine only a minor component. The prevalent odour suggesting the inside of someone’s ear. Dank clothes are there too, wet wool and onions, which she eats raw. And for me, what has always been the essence of poverty; damp newspaper.

If the thought of Miriam Margolyes rocking up in an old yellow van and parking in your driveway for fifteen years, fills you with delight, you’ll love Melbourne Theatre Company’s Lady in the Van.

Possibly.

Filthy, grumpy, troubled, combative, incontinent, possibly delusional, definitely on-the-nose, ex-nun, ex-concert pianist, purveyor of pamphlets and pencils, recipient of guidance from on high: Miss Mary (or Margaret, possibly) Shepherd, (Margolyes), steering a clapped-out yellow Bedford van; conked out in Gloucester Crescent, Camdenin 1974. Auditioning several houses as potential long-term berths, she finally came to rest at number 23, in author Alan Bennett’s own driveway.

A self-effacing, softly spoken scholarship-boy, Bennett first rose to prominence as a member of the satirical review show Beyond the Fringe. His lengthy CV includes an impressive list of appearances as an actor, along with the film and play scripts for which he has received awards and acclaim. A Private Function, The Madness of King George, The History Boys and the series of exquisitely written and rendered monologues, Talking Heads and Talking Heads 2, confirm the variety of his work.

This play, which started life as a novella, details Bennett’s ambivalence, towards everything in his life but especially his charitable act in allowing Miss Shepherd 15 years of off-street parking (and use of the indoor plumbing). His inner and outer selves are played by two actors. It also reveals Miss Shepherd’s own conflicted past; significantly, an incident where a car crashed into her stationary vehicle killing its driver and Miss Shepherd fled the scene.

So on paper it looks like a no-brainer: take one (1) adored British (newly minted Australian) actress, one (1) successful story-book-play-film by one (1) award-winning British writer and watch the sparks fly. Sadly, the battery seems completely flat: does anyone have any jump-leads?

Dressed (Alicia Clements set and costume design) as a cross between a fortune teller in a low-budget sitcom circa 1967 and the Birdwoman in Mary Poppins the usually effervescent Margolyes (her own one-woman show Dickens’ Women attests to her versatility) is curiously one-note in her performance as Miss Shepherd. It’s pitched as a sort of vocal foghorn without colour or shade. Neither Miss Shepherd’s imperiousness, fragility and guilt nor her terror at the repeated appearances of the quietly menacing blackmailer Underwood (Richard Piper) are particularly evident.

This flatness is true of the production with director Dean Bryant seeming to have squeezed the life out of what, on past outings, is a witty and poignant piece of writing.

Daniel Frederiksen and James Millar as the divided Bennett are solid but without Margoyles on fire, they’ve nothing to play with: the ground, without the melody.

As nothing connects so nothing really stands out except the Van. But even that, parked centre stage and occasionally rotated – yesterday’s dinner desiccating in the microwave – feels like a metaphor; this play is bogged.

If the Van remains fairly fixed, elsewhere wheels are turning.The authorial chair (paired with a lamp set just low enough that there’s a decent chance Bennett 1 will brain himself before interval) is on wheels, the gate is on wheels, the front door, the bin? – wheels. Everything glides in, slowly, from stage left or stage right, and glides back again. Perhaps they’ll do it on ice, I find myself musing. It’s very Zen, very trance inducing, exacerbating the feeling that energy is being slowly sapped away.

There are brief injections of life from Claire Healy as the perky social worker and Dalip Sondhi as the smug neighbour. Richard Piper does well as Underwood but the rather weak slaps he administers to the van suggest a desire to avoid damaging a vintage vehicle rather than the intent to scare its inhabitant.

Some pretty adorable small scale models of both the Bedford van and the additional three-wheeler Miss Shepherd acquires drive along the top of the back brick wall which is kinda cute.

The opening shards-of-memory lighting and later, a sky-full-of-lanterns (lighting designer Matt Scott) are rather lovely.

I’m clutching at straws here.

The dying moments of the evening (which feels interminable, 15 years passing like… 15 years, the piece needs a ruthless edit) contain flickers of energy: the two Alans fictionalise Miss Shepherd, granting her – or at least, the Van – an ascension to the heavens: sweet release but it’s a half-hearted attempt at resuscitation, too little, too late.

At the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until March 6

5 responses to “The Lady in the Van theatre review (Playhouse, Melbourne)

  1. The play seems to be more about the writer than the lady in the van. The dual personalities of Mr. Bennett dominated the stage time so much that when we do get to see her it comes across as trivialising poverty and mental illness. The director Dean Bryant doesn’t seem to be much chop either as the scene (spoiler alert) of the van going to heaven looked clunky and lacking in panache.

  2. As someone who has great affection for Bennett’s writing, and who thoroughly enjoy Maggie Smith’s performance in the movie, I fail to see why this was staged, especially with the perennially dull actor Miriam Margoyles in the lead role.

  3. At last, Fiona, someone who recognises that “The Lady In. The Van”, although written by a playwright I much admire, would never have got to the stage had it not been for the author’s reputation. It never rises – in all the productions I have seen – to sufficient dramatic levels of engagement for it to deserve the title of play. It is an indulgent reminisce at best.

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