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The Lady In The Van

Date

24th November 2017

Society

Woodford Community Players

Venue

Woodford Community Hall

Type of Production

Play

Director

Carla Stokes

Report

Author: Kevin Proctor

If I hadn’t read so in the programme it would soon have become evident that this production was in the hands of a new director to Woodford Players. Carla Stokes guides this unusual piece of theatre with utmost expertise, making the boldest of statements is the genius set which Carla also took charge of. Bennett doesn’t write his works with staging or the logistics of the theatre in mind, he’ll focus on the words and incongruous characters leaving the often many hurdles to someone else to conjure up how to physically put the piece on its feet which Carla did with supreme aplomb.

This play instinctively asks a lot with its staging requirements which would challenge most professional theatres.  When reminding ourselves of Woodford Player’s venture of ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ last year, it’s evident that this team can rise to the challenge when it comes to staging and this production completely rings true to the inspirational reputation they’ve attained in doing so.  

If Bennett is not writing about himself, it’s his mother or in this case it’s both with probably the most eccentric character of them all at the pivot.  

Sue Mooney was simply wonderful as the eponymous Miss Shepherd (the lady of the title) offering a charming act - well, as charming as a smelly old lady who’s outstayed her welcome for fifteen years can be! Sue has the knack to make us laugh and repulse us before tugging at the heart strings in a performance which celebrated Maggie Smith’s interpretation to the delight of many! A complete tour-de-force act.  

As Alan Bennett, Mike Gallagher gave a genuine and functional performance for the most part though glimpses of awkwardness were apparent, his frequent stance complete with limp wrist may well have been an observation of the man himself, however, this frequent ‘go to’ pose portrayed as something quite unnatural to the degree it appeared insincere. It cannot be denied that Mike exceled with the text, delivering a desirable fluidity and droll personality. It isn’t unusual for British playwrights to put themselves in their work, sometimes more blatantly than others and Alan Bennett is renowned for it yet this particular piece is so self-indulgent, seeing himself once was evidently not enough so we get a double vision Bennett with two actors playing the celebrated playwright. The other Alan was portrayed by John Lomax who appeared to have a fair amount of difficulty making the script spark seeming more like memorised sentences than a man thinking out loud. Alan is an interesting character, when seeing him in interviews and documentaries his quirky and eccentric nature is quite endearing and is a quality I wanted to experience from the Alan’s in this production.  

Various neighbours, as well as well-intentioned social workers, doctors, undertakers and of course ‘Mam’ are caricatured by Woodford regulars.

One factor which did dampen the presentation slightly was the extent of memory lapses, some were recovered from better than others but surprisingly it wasn’t the thesps with the main bulk of the text to memorise who were the central felons here, I presume that not getting off book sooner could be what’s responsible? An all too common gripe in this game.   

This atypical domestic semi-autobiographical drama is not a fast-paced affair, the play focuses on subtilties over and above lavish effects which are far more valuable to the play than its humour, something which was distinct via the choices made and with the tone the piece had been delivered.

‘The Lady In The Van’ could well be deemed as a godsend for some directors and a nightmare for others. Bennett does apply some superbly written fragments within this story that’s so remarkable that it’s impossible to believe that it was (mostly) true which probably reveals as much about Bennett as it does about the lady herself.