Lady In The Van review: Alan Bennett reveals his true ‘deceit’

13:20 12 November 2015

Maggie Smith in The Lady In The Van. Picture: Nicola Dove

Maggie Smith in The Lady In The Van. Picture: Nicola Dove

NDOVE

The woman who lived on Alan Bennett’s drive for 15 years provides the muse for a safe but admirable reflection on the artifice of being a writer, says Michael Joyce.

Alex Jennings is more than capable in the role, the double role, of Alan Bennett but he seems out of place here, in what is essentially a gathering of National Treasures. Alongside Bennett and Maggie Smith there is also the figure of Miss Shepherd, the transient lady whose van was parked in Bennett’s drive in Gloucester Crescent from 1974-1989 and who has become posthumously a national figure through Bennett’s various written incarnations of her, in book, on stage and radio play. These are figures who have ascended beyond the haggling and bartering of the critical marketplace, their merit is not up for debate. As you would expect of such a gathering it is simultaneously tiresome and marvellous.

It is no surprise they couldn’t get a national treasure to play Bennett: it’s a thankless role. He has made himself his own caricature, his life is his turn. To be tired of Bennett is a capital crime; unless you are actually Alan Bennett in which case it is an endless and fruitful source of material. Here he splits himself in two: the writer Bennett and the living-a-life Bennett. The pair bicker constantly, mainly about whether Mrs Shepherd should be a future subject.

The introduction of this dramatic conceit brings to mind the famous heckle at the Glasgow Empire when Bernie Winters appeared grinning through the curtain to join brother Mike on stage, “Christ!, there’s two of them!” On film, as opposed to the stage, it may seem an incredibly arch device but it is used to explore the artifice and corruption of writing a true story. Bennett has written perceptively about real life figures – Proust, Kafka, Burgess, Blunt – but always had the integrity to expose the shortcuts and deceits in the process. Self-loathing is always hard to take but his sense of shame at what a writer does is endearing.

The film Lady in The Van, shot on the same street and indeed house where the real events took place, is as safe and timid as only a British film version of a stage play can be, but also thoughtful, satisfying and honorable. When your teeth are as long as Bennett and Smith’s it is too much to expect something new; but they show they are still worthy of veneration.

Rating: 3/5 stars

For a review of the Brian Clough documentary I Believe in Miracles, go to halfmanhalfcritic.weebly.com

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