Theatre: Driving Miss Crazy

The Lady in the Van Queen's, London
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There's a photograph of Alan Bennett which has the playwright sitting at his desk, mournfully staring through the glass panes of a window. At the opening of Bennett's new play The Lady in the Van, a figure peers through a similar window. The character looks remarkably like Alan Bennett and for a second it looks as if it actually might be him.

This Bennett figure (as played by Kevin McNally) sits down at his desk, and across the stage a grimy bag lady rises from the ground and calls out to him. The next moment is the coup de theatre which makes The Lady in the Van the best new play of the year. A second Alan Bennett - dressed in the same green cords, brown sports jacket, blue v-neck jersey and red tie - rises up from behind the author's desk (this time played by Nicholas Farrell) and goes out of the study to meet her.

In real life, Miss Shepherd had parked her Bedford van outside Bennett's London home in Camden Town, and later moved it into his garden, supposedly for three months. She stayed there 15 years. Bennett first wrote about the experience, using extracts from his diary, in The London Review of Books. Thanks to the simple device of doubling the role of the narrator, the West End version succeeds wonderfully as a play.

From the very first exchange between Miss Shepherd and Bennett, we see that she has split him in two. For the rest of the evening, the two Alans, McNally and Farrell, play warring sides of the playwright's personality. It is a delightfully intimate and knowing double-act. The two Alans don't take it in turns - one coming on only when the other goes off. They live on-stage together, experiencing the same moments. One will prod the other with a ruler, or turn and register disgust or sit in sullen silence. They dispute everything: from the motives of their actions (is it kindness or timidity?) to the information they should or shouldn't tell the audience.

Sensibly enough, in Nicholas Hytner's production, the two Alans are played by actors who are not as famous as the playwright. McNally looks the softer one, with round cheeks and sloping shoulders. He is seen, most often, at the swivel chair in front of the manual typewriter, where - as the writer - he displays his own streak of ruthlessness. Farrell is the leaner, sharper one, who goes out into the world, tries to get things done, and has a bad conscience about the low acts of betrayal involved in his trade.

The audience are in one mind about Alan Bennett's two minds. They love them. But I was in two minds about Miss Shepherd's one mind: with its absurd delusions, right-wing opinions and religious references. Was I laughing with her or at her? Any reaction to this comparatively anonymous character is complicated by the casting. Miss Shepherd is played by the extremely famous Maggie Smith.

Her face is greeny-white, her voice has a taunt vibrato and her tongue keeps protruding as if Miss Shepherd can't help sticking it out at people. As one or other of the two Alans gazes at this angular face, tilted fiercely in his direction - with prolonged stares that punctuate anarchic remarks - another testing relationship came to mind. One senses how Roy North must have felt having to deal with Basil Brush.

We see Miss Shepherd from Bennett's point of view, and her moments are snapshots from his diary entries. We don't enter her mind in the way we do with the women in Talking Heads, so her actions are never quite as involving as Bennett's reactions. She ends up as the feed with the two Alans having the punchlines.

Bennett builds The Lady in the Van round polarities. There are two narrators, two homes and two mothers - his own, in the north of England, and Miss Shepherd, in the south. Bennett likes jokes that juxtapose High Culture with life on his doorstep. Gradually, in the manner of a detective story, more and more information seeps out about the secretive Miss Shepherd and her life acquires considerable pathos. But the centre of the play is autobiographical.

The Lady in the Van shows the education of a writer, as he moves from material that he has read about in books (public schools, sex) to a subject that parks outside his window. Bennett gloomily contrasts his relationship with his subject-matter with the glamorous adventures of Bruce Chatwin and Joe Orton. In this context there can be only be one view of Bennett's ambivalence. It reveals a candour and humour that is remarkable. The strength of The Lady in the Van lies in its understanding of The Gent in The Study.

`The Lady in the Van': Queen's, W1 (0171 494 5140)