Friday, 24 June 2011

Theatrical Interlude 9

Lady in the Van, Theatre Royal Norwich, June 2011.

I first came across Alan Bennett when I was studying for my GCSEs. A unit of my English course was all about monologues and I recall it being a real joy to watch all of the 1988 Talking Heads series. At that age I'm not sure I was really aware who the author was, I don't think I'd come heard of Beyond The Fringe at that point.

Up until the end of last year Bennett was someone I was aware of, I read The Uncommon Reader the day it was published, but until World Book Night reintroduced us I think that most of my Bennett awareness came from the pretty cruel sketches on the radio version of Dead Ringers.

When I found out that Lady in the Van was coming to Norwich it didn't take an awful lot of persuasion by a friend to get me to see it. I knew the rough out line of the story - Miss Shepherd parks her van in Bennett's front garden and remains there for the next 15 years - but nothing about the play.

I found it very good. The idea of the two Alan's confused me for the first few minutes but then I was swept away into the story and had no problem at all working out what was supposed to be happening at the time as opposed to what Bennett was thinking when he wrote the play.

The actors had me convinced from line one, and Nichola McAuliffe was incredible as Miss Shepherd. The play deals with some pretty deep and traumatic themes but there is enough humour throughout to stop it feeling depressing. In fact some because some scenes were funny despite the poignancy I found myself feeling guilty for laughing. Then I remembered that that is the British way of coping in times of stress and emotion - it was okay to laugh, so long as you feel a bit uncomfortable.

One thing jarred in the play for me, and that is probably because of my own perceptions, and that was the use of some of the swear words. I see Bennett as a mild mannered, polite, shy person - a veritable National Treasure - and to hear the F-word coming from 'him' was a shock. When I'm watching a play I lose track of the real world around me and the swearing did actually jolt me out of that state and back into the present. I don't doubt that Bennett does use that language (both in real life and in the situation depicted in the play) but it did to me feel anachronistic.

Each play I've seen this year has been fantastic and this one was no exception. The one thing I am particularly glad of is that the stage director didn't scent the production - my imagination was quite enough!

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