‘There’s a very British heartlessness lurking in the centre of this play that the over-produced staging inadvertently exposes’: Alison Croggon on The Lady in the Van
The tedium that bored into my soul as I watched The Lady in the Van was complex, like the description of Miss Shepherd’s odour that opens the show. A touch of resignation, leavened by whiffs of frustration and impatience. A slight tinge of anger. And what has always been for me the essence of dead theatre, a gnawing despair.
The drawcard of Miriam Margolyes, coupled with a status-worthy name like Alan Bennett, saw this show sell out in advance, posting a season extension even before it opened. The Melbourne Theatre Company is likely to consider it a huge success. And I suppose it is, if one considers theatre to be an adventure into corporate public relations.
It’s no mystery why the MTC, despite being a subsidised state theatre, has to stage box office hits: government subsidies account for less than 10 per cent of its income, and the rest has to come from somewhere. The argument goes that marquee shows like The Lady in the Van are the financial poles that hold up the tent of adventurous art.
Looking at the 2019 season, there seem to be more poles than art. Anything that might be labelled “adventurous” is either sequestered in the Lawler Studio or has been well tested elsewhere. Even so, this doesn’t explain the particular nostalgia that seems to infect this year’s program: as well as The Lady in the Van, which was written in 1999, there are two film adaptations, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Shakespeare in Love, that date from the late 20th century.
I guess these shows are designed to appeal to, well, my demographic, Gen X; or at least that portion of it that is presently heading into their well-heeled fifties. It’s also not my demographic: I’m from the part that, after a life spent in the arts, is more likely to be contemplating Miriam Margolyes’ artfully filthed-up costumes and wondering if I, too, will end up as an odiferous inconvenience in someone else’s driveway.
Alicia Clements’ design is beautifully lit by Matt Scott, and has everything that opens and closes or rotates. The first minute or so is a breathtakingly lovely sequence: a set adorned by a single Victorian street lamp gives way to a seated nun playing the piano. As she glides across the stage, another light comes up on the writer, seated in his chair. It has a kind of grace that is squandered through the rest of the production, which features constellations of lamps, levitating vans, and actors on platforms that are effectively mini-sets continually skating across the stage.
As most people probably know by now, especially after the 2015 film (which featured another Harry Potter star, Dame Maggie Smith), The Lady in the Van is an autobiographical story. In 1974, a homeless woman called Mary Shepherd moved her van into the driveway of Alan Bennett’s newly purchased home in the then arty London suburb, Camden, and stayed until her death 15 years later.
After she died, Bennett began to find out intriguing snippets about her life: that she had been a nun, that she had been a pianist. His diary entries became an article that turned into book, which then became a play, which was adapted into a film. So I guess in the end she paid her rent.
The two of them (or the three of them, as Bennett is split into two characters, the Writer and the Actual Person Living His Life, respectively played by James Millar and Daniel Frederiksen) keep a formal distance: they only touch once, on one of the few times he loses his temper. Between them this distance is expressed in honorifics: he is always Mr Bennett, she is Miss Shepherd. In the film, which was perhaps where this whole exercise was always heading, there’s a sense of relationship between the hapless playwright, who is also dealing with his increasingly demented mother, and the overbearing homeless woman who leaves her turds in his front yard. Or, at the very least, a sense of reciprocal exploitation.
There’s a very British heartlessness lurking in the centre of this play that Dean Bryant’s over-produced staging inadvertently exposes. Miss Shepherd is a parasite, tactically and determinedly wending her way to Bennett’s driveway. Bennett’s willingness to accommodate her demands is characterised as timidity or laziness on his part. Or, perhaps, the predatoriness of the writer, who has, as he reflects later in the play, no life of his own and so must prey on the lives of others.
Margolyes’ performance struck me, surprisingly, as somewhat muted: she plays the abrasive comedy, with a touch now and then of the pathetic, but somehow a more complex humanity never quite shines through. Likewise with Bennett’s overly-cute double self portrait, which comes across as a simplistic cliché about writerly practice and ethics. (Or non-ethics). As with the smaller roles, which all rehearse satirical stereotypes of one kind or another – the working class thugs, the anxiously hypocritical liberal middle class, the dotty mother – it all reads as a series of caricatures, rather than characterisation.
To be fair to (the playwright) Bennett, this is more about the production than his play. The play has room for a certain nuanced warmth that would leaven this chilly view of atomised and alienated people, who live in proximity without ever developing any intimacy. It’s a picture of two emotionally brutalised people: Bennett (the character/s) is a man frozen in adolescence, a peculiarly British phenomenon that the novelist Martin Boyd called the “pickled boy”, while Miss Shepherd is a woman damaged by trauma and mental illness. Their relationship is built on their recognition of their mutual class – educated, middle class outsiders – as well as an unspoken admission of their mutual damage, that’s expressed in the perversely respectful tact that marks a necessary distance between them.
Without this insight, all you get is heartlessness: the misogyny that lurks uncomfortably beneath Bennett’s writing begins to jut over the surface and the social satire begins to feel a little too comfortable, a bit too much like laughing at the homeless and unfortunate. The overblown spectacle of sentiment with which it ends seems like an apologetic for the delusion and obliviousness that have led, inexorably, to the otherwise inexplicable insanity of Brexit Britain. If it weren’t for all the overdressing – and, of course, the boredom – I’d almost suspect this was a subversive production. But it isn’t.
The Lady in the Van, by Alan Bennett, directed by Dean Bryant. Set and costume design by Alicia Clements, lighting design by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by Mathew Frank. Performed by Fiona Choi, Daniel Frederiksen, Claire Healy, Miriam Margolyes, James Millar, Jillian Murray, Richard Piper and Dalip Sondhi. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until March 9. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible. Hearing assistance.
Audio Described: Saturday 16 February at 2pm, Tuesday 19 February at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour: Prior to the Saturday 16 February performance at 1pm
Open Captioning via screen: Saturday 23 February at 2pm
Auslan Interpreted: Saturday 2 March at 2pm