The Lady in the Van, Ilkley Playhouse

A brilliantly crafted set, excellent performances and a highly entertaining script delighted a full house at Ilkley Playhouse this week at the opening of Alan Bennett's The Lady in the Van.

The story tells of the relationship between the famous Yorkshire playwright and his resident tramp Mary Shepherd.

Mary, who lived out her final years in a bright yellow dilapidated van, moved the vehicle into Bennett's Camden garden during the 1970's as a short term refuge. Fifteen years later she was to die in the same spot having built up an somewhat familial relationship with Bennett.

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Bennett literally split himself in two for the purposes of the play.

His younger self, (played by Bruce Sturrock) representing the hesitant, dithering 'son' coping with his mother's mental demise as well as the demise of his adopted Miss Shepherd.

His older self (Tommy Knowland) represents the more reasoned and curious 'writer' in Bennett and throughout the play we see the conflicts between the two.

The older Bennett, more detached in his outlook, wishes Miss Shepherd to remain in his garden out of a morbid curiosity to witness her 'story'.

Miss Shepherd is excellent fodder for the writer within. Smelly, incontinent, unhygienic and deluded she is a woman of mystery and a woman with a past. She has a fear of music which conflicts with her story that she was once an accomplished pianist and it is these idiosyncrasies and contradictions in character which hold a morbid fascination for the writer in Bennett.

The younger Bennett, immersed in her actual every day life, allows her to stay as a result of a burdening conscience and it would seem, an unwillingness to do the wrong thing more than a willingness to do the right thing.

As their relationship builds, the two aspects of Bennett's character are revealed as he allows Miss Shepherd to stay on his land despite her quarrelsome ways and pungent aromas.

The conflict reaches its height when the old lady is found dead in her van – not by Bennett but by a local social worker. The writer in Bennett feels cheated at having not been the first to discover the body and it is through him we hear the secret and somewhat horrifying voice of the voyeur in Bennett.

The two Bennetts carried their parts off excellently – one wise and in control the other stammering and hesitant, unable to make decisions or take the reigns.

Meanwhile actress Jan Thomas gave an outstanding performance as Miss Shepherd with just the right dose of cantankerous wit and wisdom to keep the audience in stitches.

Every movement was choreographed to perfection in her portrayal of the old tramp, with an exaggerated majesty suited to her character.

The jovial mood of the play was further enhanced by an excellently built set – there were peals of laughter when the yellow van was wheeled on to stage to join the Victorian frontage of Bennett's home.

The van, like Miss Shepherd, has a history – the two perfectly synchronised, crumbling, smelly but intriguing all the same.

The play, which opened on Monday, May 24 at the Playhouse has a two week run and will end on Saturday June 5. It is well worth the visit.

To June 5, 2010