Based on the memoir of playwright Alan Bennett, The Lady in the Van stars Maggie Smith as an eccentric homeless woman who moves into the driveway of the Chatham-dwelling writer, played by Alex Jennings, as he struggles to reconcile two parts of his life: living and writing. The tragic back story of the cantankerous Miss Shepherd—once a talented pianist and later a failed nun—is slowly revealed while a Greek chorus of various nosy neighbours voice their opinions on Bennett’s unusual relationship to the elderly lady. Although the story mainly focuses on the colourful behaviour of Miss Shepherd, it also dwells on the role of the writer, who weaves real-life experience with utter fiction in his writing and wrestles with the ethics of doing so. Supporting actors include the fruity-voiced Roger Allam as an imperious neighbour and the delightful Frances de la Tour (who played Madame Maxime in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as another, kindlier neighbour.
Maggie Smith is outstanding in her role as the alternately physically repellent and endearingly loopy title character. (Fun fact: Smith previously embodied the role of Miss Shepherd on stage in 1999 and on the radio in 2009.) Alex Jennings also does very well in the dual role of the narrator and his alter ego, the writer, by delivering pithy musings with a distinctive, nasally Northern accent. The self-referential and self-aware elements of the story are, for the most part, charming and intriguing. Bennett’s two selves commenting back and forth on events and directing the flow of the story is delightfully meta, as is a series of cameos made by the cast of The History Boys (which is perhaps Bennett’s best known work). Near the end, however, the reality-altering power of the author character veers unexpectedly off-course like a speeding motorbike via a surreal Ascension scene. Still, the good greatly outweighs the bad in The Lady in the Van, which is directed with an irreverent and stylish air.
Rating: 4 out of 5 schoolchildren practicing the recorder