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The Lady in the Van

Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Four stars

If the former World War Two ambulance driver who camped out in a yellow-painted Humber in Alan Bennett's Camden garden for fifteen years until her death in 1989 had been around today, chances are she would have been carted off a lot earlier than she is in Bennett's quasi-autobiographical look at truth, artifice and how we care for each other.

The woman Bennett knew as Miss Shepherd arrives in the neighbourhood at the fag-end of the sixties like a leftover from the Bloomsbury set by way of the squatters paradise of alternative London. With Bennett represented by two actors, both facets of his split personality collect people's personal tics as material, even as he divides his time between his ageing mother and this other psychologically bombed-out presence who defines him.

Led by strong central performances by Jacqueline Dutoit as Miss Shepherd and Mark Elstob and Ronnie Simon as the two Bennetts, Patrick Sandford's production goes beyond its initial comic warmth to recall a time when people like Miss Shepherd were at the very least indulged, and in districts like Camden accepted as part and parcel of a once colourful but now gentrified social fabric. The latter is shown through Bennett's neighbours, who start the play as a couple of aspirational groovers and end it as Barbour-clad toffs.

Punctuated by explosions of increasingly surreal life, the play is also an often unflattering self-analysis. The Bennetts resemble Gilbert and George as possessed by a pair of Yorkshire-sired Jiminy Crickets, each reining the other in lest their emotional guards come down in a gently daring expose that flits between life, art and the selfish demands of both.

The Herald, July 26th 2015

ends

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