MTC’s comprehensive advertising campaign across the city has left Melbournians in no doubt whatsoever that it was rolling one of its 2019 big-ticket items into town – but when the star vehicle driving your Van is the inimitable Miriam Margolyes, theatrical clout gets its poster girl.
Originally penned as a memoir by esteemed British playwright, humourist and wordsmith Alan Bennett, The Lady in Van has enjoyed several incarnations as a book, a stage play, a radio play and most recently a motion picture.
Given we are seldom able to choose them, neighbours can, on occasion, be an unpleasant fact of life – but most extraordinarily in this tale is that the writer himself effectively created his own problem and offered up his London residence driveway to an elderly homeless woman living in a dilapidated van.
You couldn’t make it up, and he didn’t.
Such were her eccentricities, Bennett has always acknowledged that his garden guest Miss Shepherd, provided him with a wealth of material, but it is the analysis of his own part in this absurd situation that makes the story so compelling. Being on stage and indeed writing himself for the stage is not unknown territory for Bennett but the convention established here is to double the self-deprecation and have himself portrayed simultaneously by two different actors. Alan Bennet 1 is effectively the real Alan, jostling with himself and his conscience to manage a predicament of his own making and indeed the juxtaposed narrative of his declining mother. Alan Bennett 2 is, by contrast, the writer observing and commenting on proceedings from an almost clinical and commercial perspective. While Alan quite literally, berates himself for the life he has not, or is not living, his deranged houseguest appears to rejoice in oblivious and rapacious disregard for the world that has arguably dismantled her and her existence.
Miriam Margolyes is quite simply a force of nature – sublime! The detail and thought that has gone into summoning this peerless portrayal is a gift she shares and nothing short of a privilege to receive. With exquisite timing, she grasps the subtleties in Bennett's text to deliver solo moments of mesmerising and heart-breaking softness to a character both hilarious and wretched.
Miss Shepherd is of course a formidable and wonderfully drawn character but the real story here is of a man conflicted and tormented by the woman he once described as “unreachable”. This work is so much more than a series of hysterical moments and as an audience we must get that more, but as I sat in the theatre, genuinely loving the show, I kept feeling something was missing. Were the performances of other cast members underwhelming? No; for the most part they were great. Daniel Frederiksen and James Millar worked incredibly well as two halves of Alan Bennett. Claire Healy was a perfectly jobs worthy social worker. Jillian Murray as Alan Bennett's Mam was sweet and accent spot on. Richard Piper playing a series of roles was thorough in all of them and as neighbours, Dalip Sondhi and Fiona Choi gave some ‘glad it’s not us’ perspective.
I loved the joy in Alicia Clements design however, the almost always automation did become a distraction. One might argue that the problem for the play was indeed the problem for the reserved writer at the time – how do you combat the enormity of such a character in life and indeed in the theatre? While Miss Shepard is played so superbly and generously here by Miriam Margolyes, for balance and indeed for that crucial analysis of a writer in conflict to be realised, all others and all other elements on the stage need more amplification and this, is perhaps the missing component in the overview.
The Lady in the Van is a powerful and frank examination of what it is to share our lives and our space. This is an incredible moment in Melbourne’s theatrical calendar and despite a few minor queries, I firmly believe it will find its level as the season continues.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
The Lady in the Van
by Alan Bennett
Director Dean Bryant
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
Dates: 2 February – 6 March 2019
Bookings: mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800