Review: The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City

PUBLISHED: 13:31 20 November 2016 | UPDATED: 13:31 20 November 2016

Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]

Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]

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The Lady in the Van plays at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City this week until Saturday, November 26. Maggie Blackburn reviews the Alan Bennett play.

Simon Parr as Alan Bennett and Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]Simon Parr as Alan Bennett and Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]

For me, as for most of the theatre and cinema-going population I suspect, Dame Maggie Smith is Miss Shepherd.

I first came across her when I saw The Lady in the Van in London in 1999 and was re-acquainted with the old bat in last year’s screen adaptation.

Her portrayal then was described as the “Maggiest of Maggie Smith performances”.

Big boots to fill!

Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]

So it was with some trepidation that I went to watch the Barn Theatre’s production of my favourite Alan Bennett play.

I needn’t have worried. Victoria Rive made no effort to reproduce Maggie Smith’s performance, as perhaps a less experienced actor might have done, but delivered her own interpretation and in doing so produced a very memorable Miss Shepherd indeed.

She’s superb in this role.

The Lady in the Van is based on Bennett’s experiences with a homeless woman who pulled her van into his Gloucester Crescent garden in 1974 and stayed for 15 years.

Clive Weatherley as Alan Bennett 2, Simon Parr as Alan Bennett, and Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]Clive Weatherley as Alan Bennett 2, Simon Parr as Alan Bennett, and Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]

Part comedy, part tragedy, it’s as much about Bennett, coping with an eccentric old woman on his drive and a senile mother in Yorkshire, as it is about Miss Shepherd.

There are two Bennetts on stage. One writes and comments to the audience, the other lives his life.

It’s an artful device in that it embodies the split in Bennett that’s in all of us.

His saintly forbearance with Miss Shepherd is matched by a clear-eyed awareness of her literary potential.

Simon Parr as Alan Bennett and Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]Simon Parr as Alan Bennett and Victoria Rive as Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]

Is he a modern-day saint as his neighbours claim, or was he just too weak to turn her away?

There are many deeply moving scenes in this play, with rather sad and funny observations in nearly every line.

I particularly liked the funeral scene when, with the dilapidated yellow van in the background, and the coffin in the foreground, Alan 2 has an Ortonesque moment, spotting a fanciable young man across the grave.

In an 11-strong cast of unusually uniform excellence, it hardly seems fair to single out any performances, but I think I must.

Clive Weatherley as Alan Bennett 2 and Simon Parr as Alan Bennett in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]Clive Weatherley as Alan Bennett 2 and Simon Parr as Alan Bennett in The Lady in the Van at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City [Picture: Robert Gill]

I’ve already paid tribute to the superb Victoria Rive.

The other two pillars of the show are, of course, the Bennetts.

Simon Parr and Clive Weatherley deliver beguilingly restrained, comic performances, playing off each other with perfect timing.

Looking and sounding like Bennett (thanks in part to wardrobe and make-up) they both have that ability to be still on stage, say nothing, and yet tell the story.

Keith Thompson’s Underwood, David Bailey’s doctor and Wendy Bage’s social worker were particularly strong among the smaller parts.

As is often the case with Barn productions, there’s great technical assurance in the presentation, another star of the show being the van.

If I have any criticism at all, I was a bit irritated by a chair that seemed to be oddly placed.

That said, this is a terrific production.

I won’t spoil the end for you other than to say it was a piece of delightfully theatrical absurdity.

You may not be able to get a ticket now, but I urge you to try!

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