As if playing the leading role of the cantankerous old crow Miss Shepherd (aka The Lady in the Van) in both a West End theatre production and a Radio 4 adaptation was not enough, Dame Maggie Smith has once again donned her soiled undergarments – the smell of which are “sweet, with urine only a minor component” – to reprise her critically acclaimed and Olivier-nominated performance for the silver screen. Skint, probably! Which is no doubt how the real-life vehicular vagabond would have retorted.
Based upon an unexpected encounter between writer Alan Bennett and an elderly bag lady by the name of Mary or Margaret (“I’m in an incognito position, possibly”) Shepherd who resided in the back of a clapped-out camper van in the heart of Camden, this delightful film charts their fraught friendship from when she first approached him outside a Catholic church to ask him if he would give her a jump start to the nearest public lavatory right up to her Monty Python-inspired ascension fifteen years later to the big WC in the sky.
On the surface and as the trailers would have you believe, The Lady in the Van is a gag-a-minute farce between a feisty old hobo whose tongue is sharper than a menopausal Miss Piggy and an uptight gay writer whose humdrum personal life is squarer than a Rubik’s Cube. And judging by the first half hour or so, that is indeed what you are treated to by the former artistic director of the National Theatre Nicholas Hynter. “I was the cleanest of all my mother’s children,” boasts the odoriferous Miss Shepherd after spending an urgent penny in Bennett’s pristine loo. “Particularly in the unseen places.”
But as the film progresses and their relationship deepens and darkens, what we get is still a gentle chuckle-fest of the late, great Thora Hird variety as evidenced by the following wry description of Miss Shepherd’s haphazard driving skills: “Whereupon she applies the handbrake with such determination that, like Excalibur, it can never afterwards be released.” But also a tender portrayal of two lonely people seeking companionship: one a spinster with a secret past who despite her homeless status and wayward appearance adopts a glass half-full approach to life; the other a self-contained bachelor who yearns to break free of a life half-lived.
Thankfully, for both them and us, the oddest of odd couples find solace in one another’s ships (or rather vans) passing in the night company. Shepherd makes peace with the demons of her past (running away from the scene of a crime, a musical career cut short after a stay in an asylum and a calling to god blighted by domineering nuns). And Bennett steps out of the shadows of doubt and complements his professional success with personal happiness. “There is no such thing as marking time,” he wisely concludes. “Time marks you.”
Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings are terrific, both in terms of characterisation and chemistry which fizzes between them like an Alka-Seltzer. The former’s angular physicality and play dough facial expressions are reminiscent of the wonder that was Wilfrid Bramwell as Albert Steptoe; whereas the latter is the epitome of restraint. Solid support is provided by a long line of luminaries, most notably Roger Allam and Gwen Taylor as his snooty neighbour and smothering mother. And credit to Nicholas Hynter for creating a fine film which, although dipping in the middle, is a delicate balance of light and shade, laughter and tears.
However, the last word must go to the indomitable Miss Shepherd who, when asked by Bennett if she would like a cup of coffee to help her recuperate from a breathless ride on a wheelchair, replied: “Oh, you don’t have to go to all that trouble. I’ll have a half cup!”
by Peter Callaghan
THE LADY IN THE VAN
Director: Nicholas Hynter
Writer: Alan Bennett
Cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Roger Allam, Gwen Taylor,
Frances de la Tour, Deborah Findlay, David Calder, Jim Broadbent,
Marion Bailey, Pandora Colin, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey
Release: 13 Nov 2015 Rating: 12A Running Time: 104 mins