The Lady in the Van Review
Playwright Alan Bennett didn’t know what he was in for when he invited the homeless Miss Shepherd to park her van in his empty driveway. The vehicle was where she lived; and while Bennett expected her to stay for about three months, she ultimately resided in front of his house until her death - that is to say, fifteen years. Clearly struck by the experience, Bennett wrote the story into a memoir, which was then adapted as a stage and radio play, both starring Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd.
The Lady in the Van, directed by Nicholas Hytner, is the latest iteration of this story - this time, in film form, with Maggie Smith reprising her role. It is both thoroughly funny and thoroughly British. Bennett, who wrote the script, manages with dexterity to tease out the humour of what is in reality a rather depressing situation. The result is moving without being sentimental, and incredibly entertaining.
Miss Shepherd at first lives in her van parked on Gloucester Crescent in Camden, where Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) resides. She is a grumpy, contrarian presence - brusquely shooing away any of the well-meaning neighbours who try to help - and the direction makes a point of conveying that her van smells awful. When one day the street is marked with double yellow lines, she is forced to move. Alan, also concerned about the passer-by’s who’ve been bothering her on the public way, offers her the spot in his driveway.
Bennett (the scriptwriter, not the character) imagines two versions of himself speaking to each other - one who writes and observes, another who lives his life. The two converse continually about what he should do and what he should write - Jennings making for a droll narrator in these moments. It’s a clever, meta-device through which Bennett (scriptwriter) side-steps any self-aggrandising, using it to convey that although he welcomes Miss Shepherd, he is often rather irritated at her presence. He also discusses with himself his plans for turning Miss Shepherd into a story, gently teasing himself for the thought.
The similarities between the life of Miss Shepherd and that of his own mother don’t escape him – both are about the same age, yet one lives close to him in squalor while the other has been sent to comfortable retirement home in another part of the country, gradually losing her mind. The parallel adds further depth to Bennett’s character, and a genuine poignancy to the story.
Maggie Smith is likeable as Miss Shepherd, and Bennett and Hytner never fall into the trap of portraying her as cute. She is dirty - often grimly so - rude, bossy, and never grateful for anything. Only her small moments of happy madness - painting her van bright yellow, or taking a walk by the sea - hint at an endearing vulnerability. In her rigid, grouchy ways, Shepherd is not far from what Lady Violet of Downton Abbey (which Smith also plays) might have been like, if very poor. But Shepherd has a wider emotional range, and Smith portrays this complicated, mysterious woman compellingly.
Underneath its humour, the film calls into question issues surrounding neighbourhood communities, which seem rather different in 1980s London than they are now. The neighbours all know each other, and have families - and while Bennett shows them a tad hypocritical with their good intentions, they at least pretend to make an effort. It raises the intriguing question of whether residents anonymous to each other would do the same in the current day.
The Lady in the Van is a funny, cleverly written story about odd friendships, growing old, and the process of writing - a charming drama.