Gallery Players set design challenge for The Lady in the Van

Gallery Players' own miracle-worker creates Bedford van on New Wolsey stage

Staging a play always has its challenges but building a full-sized Bedford van is something special. We take a look backstage at the Gallery Players' The Lady In The Van’ which was staged at The new Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich in July.

Dave Borthwick working away on the construction of the lightweight Bedford van for Lady In The Van Photo: Andrew Clarke

You would think that the most challenging thing about staging Alan Bennett's comic drama The Lady In The Van would be providing not one but two Alan Bennetts who comment on the comings and goings of their not entirely welcome drive-way tenant.

That proved the relatively easy part with Gallery Players director Steve Wooldridge managing to cast experienced actors Steve Taplin and Daren Nunn as the bespectacled playwright along with Jenni Horne as the recalcitrant Miss Shepherd. No, the real challenge was somehow getting a lightweight, but entirely believable classic Bedford van onto the New Wolsey stage.

Enter long-term set designer Dave Borthwick, a man, rather like Scotty in Star Trek, known for his feats of engineering and his ability to seemingly achieve the impossible.

Steve Wooldridge describes him as a miracle-worker. Instead of cannibalising a real van, instead he chose to build one from scratch - "working from the original Bedford specifications. A real feat of ingenuity."

Dave Borthwick with plans for the construction of the lightweight Bedford van for Lady In The Van Photo: Andrew Clarke

For Dave, he modestly shrugs his shoulders, smiles a slightly bemused smile, and says he enjoys the challenge. Whether he realises it or not (and I'm sure he must) Dave is worth his weight in gold. He is one of those rare people, someone totally in love with theatre but has no desire to actually go on the stage himself.

He is much happier scurrying around backstage with a paint pot in one hand and an oxyacetylene torch in the other or perhaps nowadays a 3-D printer!

To enter Dave Borthwick's workshop is to enter an Aladdin's cave of creative industry. A Dave Borthwick set is a long way from panto-props and painted back-cloths. He creates worlds you can live in and therefore they are easier to act in.

However, his latest challenge was exacting to say the least. "It had to be a particular type of van," he explains "A Bedford CA from the fifties: in the seventies, when the play starts, it's already an old van.

They are very hard to get hold of. We were looking at paying £20,000 plus for a vehicle, it would be impossible to sell on - we would have had to take the engine, gearbox and oil out, because we aren't allowed to have those on stage. So we decided to build one.

"It's a great challenge, and to be honest I really wanted to make it. We had a real car in a previous show, and it took weeks of cutting and welding to get it how we wanted it.

"We are making it using stage techniques - it's all smoke and mirrors. It is largely wood and the sort of foam you use for household insulation. There's lots of cutting, sawing and sanding to shape to get the right contours for the van. It's very satisfying."

The enterprise started with a scale model made out of card and foam, using exactly the same techniques that Dave could scale up - just to prove it could be done.

Dave Borthwick and his team working away on the construction of the lightweight Bedford van for Lady In The Van Photo: Andrew Clarke

With a fortnight until opening night, Dave is happy with the progress. "It's going well so far. The trickiest bit is the sliding side doors. The lady has to get in and out of her van.

"The van is central to the whole play. It's centre stage, the lady lives in it, it travels around the stage and is seen from every angle - at times she even has to drive it."

Dave says that he finds working in three dimensions very satisfying - "I find it easy to think in that way. I have made lots of other props for Gallery Players shows but the van will take some beating."

Other favourites have included a full-sized sheepdog puppet for Far From the Madding Crowd, the cow Milky White for Into the Woods, and a statue of a dog for a play called Heroes, which was required to turn its head at one point.

For director Steve Wooldridge, the knowledge that they could have a realistic Bedford van was vital before rehearsals could even begin. With the van you don't have a play and it's one of Wooldridge's favourites, a favourite from one of his favourite playwrights.

"I have been a life-long fan of Alan Bennett. I very much admire his wry sense of humour, his keen sense of observation and his ability to make us look at what is familiar in an unfamiliar way, whether in his plays or his prose writings.

I have previously directed 'The History Boys' and several of his 'Talking Heads' and thoroughly enjoyed doing so."

First a book, a play and then a film,The Lady in the Van tells the true story of Alan Bennett's strained friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in 1974 before allowing her 'temporarily' to park her Bedford van in the driveway of his Camden home.

For Alan Bennett charity truly began at home but little did he know that she would remain there for 15 years. "It's a wonderfully witty play and centres on their extraordinary relationship, which for Bennett was a source of intrigue, frustration and compassion.

"One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation," he wrote.

As Alan Bennett very candidly admits, he and Miss Shepherd mutually benefitted from her presence; he provided her with a safe haven while she acted as his muse, providing endless humorous material with her rude interactions with the outside world.

The story is funny, poignant and life affirming. The Lady in the Van touches upon a variety of themes: eccentricity, guilt and attitudes to homelessness.

"Bennett comments that he struggled to plough on with work at his desk in the window of his house in Gloucester Crescent in Camden - which faced Miss Shepherd's parked van - and often got tangled in the happenings of the lady rather than producing work. Hence his decision to invite her onto his drive."

The Lady In The Van, by Alan Bennett, was staged by the Gallery Players, at the New Wolsey Theatre from July 24-28 and was part of the New Wolsey's Open Season.

This article by Andrew Clarke used by kind permission of the East Anglian Daily Times.

If anyone is staging ‘The Lady In The Van’ and is  interested is buying/hiring Gallery’s van (which incidentally comes apart easily and is currently in gallery’s scene store) they should contact Steve or Dave via the Gallery Players’ website.