“From the very first scene it’s plain just how wonderful Bennett’s writing is”
For its latest Covid-secure performance since reopening, Theatre Royal Windsor is this week staging Alan Bennett’s ‘The Lady in the Van’ which is presented by a cast of eight, reading from scripts behind microphones on stands. This forms part of their four latest ‘Windsor on Air’ shows.
The opening night crowd was good, with rigorous precautions ensuring their saftey.
‘She came for three weeks – she stayed for 15 years’. This film tagline describes Alan Bennett’s real life relationship with an elderly ex-convent novitiate and bag lady who took up residence in a mimosa-painted van on his front garden. Miss Shepherd was a less than fragrant woman of mystery, who increasingly came to dominate his existence up to her death in 1989.
The playwright (who is himself an actor) appears twice as a character in this piece, which was first published in prose the year of Miss Shepherd’s death. That Bennett is a ‘national treasure’ is entirely a truism, but the line deservedly reflects his droll way with words and his huge success with ‘The Lady’ and others including ‘The History Boys’, ‘Talking Heads’, ‘The Madness of King George III’ and ‘Habeas Corpus’.
It must be daunting for any performer who is asked to walk in the footsteps of either Bennett or another treasure, Dame Maggie Smith, who portrayed Miss Shepherd so memorably in the 2015 film. David Horovitch is the younger Alan – a name that “has as much flavour as a pebble”. He has some nice interplay with his older self who is writing the piece for us. RADA trained Matthew Cottle gives an uncannily good impersonation and both have accent and delivery just right. Jenny Seagrove did not reference Dame Maggie, but gave her own tremulous voiced and feisty interpretation of the part.
From the very first scene it’s plain just how wonderful Bennett’s writing is. But in this radio studio style performance, with the cast glued to microphone stands and their scripts, it all starts to get just a little bit samey by the end of the first half. The sparkling dry quips seem to pepper almost every speech, and I felt that on this particular opening night, the ensemble weren’t quite gelling as they should.
Things get better after the interval when some of the mystery about Miss Shepherd is revealed. Martin Carroll does sterling service as the Foley man (sound effects artist). Other cast members – Sara Crowe, Ashley D Gayle, Elizabeth Counsell (a memorable Mam) and Alan Howell all have their moments in the story. Roy Marsden directs this pleasant entertainment.
“Bennett’s wonderfully crafted throwaway lines pepper the text”
Almost fifty years on from Peter Nichols’ “The National Health” – a black comedy with tragic overtones that focuses on the appalling conditions in an under-funded national health hospital – Alan Bennett’s “Allelujah!” is its natural heir. Set in the geriatric ward of a doomed Yorkshire hospital, Bennett’s play echoes the themes but with a sharp, contemporary bite and with more humour that cushions the inherent and inevitable diatribes that come with the subject matter. Thankfully, for the most part, the politics are pushed backstage: the play’s the thing – and this is pure entertainment from start to finish. There is a definite television sitcom feel to the production; a less whimsical ‘Green Wing’ with shades of the surrealism of Dennis Potter’s ‘The Singing Detective’. It is a potent combination.
The ‘Beth’ (short for Bethlehem), an old-fashioned cradle-to-grave hospital on the edge of the Pennines, is threatened with closure as part of the NHS efficiency drive. Meanwhile a documentary crew is brought onto the wards to capture its fight for survival. But, resorting to some underhand methods, they also uncover some of the darker methods used to combat the constant struggle to free up beds for newcomers. Under Nicholas Hytner’s acute direction the comedy and the poignancy are never at odds with each other. Hytner is well attuned to Bennett’s ability to switch from humour to pathos in a whisper. The biggest laughs hail from some of the cruellest dialogue. Bennett’s wonderfully crafted throwaway lines pepper the text, in which one of the elderly patients, reacting to the news that another has passed away, describes it as “very rude – didn’t he realise there was a queue”.
There is no such discourtesy as the twenty-five strong cast queue up to deliver their fine performances. Here democracy rules, although there are some stand outs. Deborah Findlay gives a wonderful turn as the ward sister who singlehandedly and criminally ensures that the hospital’s turnover of patients meets its targets. Jeff Rawle as the bigoted, lung-shredded ex-miner exhales a corrosive mix of insult and affection, especially towards his ministerial son (Samuel Barnett) who, by slightly implausible coincidence, has been sent up from Whitehall as the key facilitator in closing down the hospital. Peter Forbes lends a balanced self-important, self-mocking charm to his chairman of the hospital trust, and Sacha Dhawan’s character of the young Dr Valentine lays bare the more contemporary themes in our post-Windrush climate, and post-Saville era where “bedside manners borders on interference”.
Yet there is still a feeling of nostalgia enhanced by the scenes being punctuated with dreamlike sequences of song and dance, brilliantly choreographed by Arlene Phillips, as the patients form a choir of angelic voices to reclaim a long-forgotten past amid the classic songs of their youth. You almost sense that they are being furtively drip fed some sort of hallucinogen alongside the normal daily medication.
Only in the final scenes when, like the hospital itself, the fourth wall is pulled down do we get a hint that the show, in part, is a vehicle for Bennett’s bugbears. Not just about the NHS, but modern British society in general. Bennett makes no attempt to hide his own voice as Dhawan’s Dr Valentine, facing deportation, addresses the audience directly and proclaims, “Open your arms, England, before it’s too late”. This is the only slightly preachy moment in an otherwise slick, powerful and magical commentary on society. But at least it was saved for the end. The rest is a pure delight: a real tonic.