“The Lady in the Van” Is a Mostly True Story Of a Crazy Old Woman
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
What would you do if an elderly woman parked her van in your driveway and set up housekeeping? Not just for a few nights, but for 15 years.
Alan Bennett allowed it. Then he went on to write a memoir about it, which he turned into a funny play. And now this “mostly true story” has become a film.
Simply called “The Lady in the Van,” this droll dramedy is entertaining audiences at the Tropic Cinema this week.
Formerly a history professor, the real-life Alan Bennett made his name in show biz as a collaborator with British comedians Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke. After helping pen the satirical revue “Beyond the Fringe,” he went on to write numerous plays and screenplays (“The Madness of King George,” “The History Boys”). In 1999 he wrote the play about his encounter with Miss Mary Shepherd.
Turns out, that wasn’t her name at all. Margaret Fairchild had been a promising pianist (she studied under Alfred Cortot), but after getting locked up in a looney bin, then escaping, she went on the lam.
Bennett permitted the crazy old woman to park in his driveway in order to keep her dilapidated Bedford van out of his street view. Eventually Miss Mary came to be accepted by the reluctant neighbors, and by Bennett himself.
Acclaimed British actress Maggie Smith starred in the play during its run in London’s West End. When it came to the screen, director Nicholas Hytner convinced her to reprise the role.
Also reprising the role of Alan Bennett is Alex Jennings, looking something like a bespectacled William H. Macy (with a Brit accent).
Bennett’s fastidious, timid character is the perfect foil for Mary Shepherd’s unkempt, irascible, shrew.
However, along the way, we come to discover this is not really Alan Bennett’s story. Rather it’s a poignant portrait of an addled old woman, summed up in the line: “In life, going downhill is an uphill job.”