To derive humor from a sad story is an achievement, particularly when that story happens to be true. Playwright Alan Bennett lived this tale, and his oft-collaborator/director Nicholas Hytner (“The History Boys”) gives us the vicarious pleasure of getting to know the odd Mary Shepherd–a.k.a. Margaret Fairchild–an elderly woman who squatted in Bennett’s driveway for fifteen years (a few times literally, but I’ll get to that in a moment). Miss Shepherd is inhabited by Downton Abbey matriarch Maggie Smith, with every bit the attitude of a duchess. Her palace is a beat up old van, liberally coated in bright yellow house paint. The folks of Camden Town, Bennett’s affluent London suburb, are generally good people, but they’d prefer that the woman and her roving eyesore find some other curbside to keep warm. But Miss Shepherd’s decrepit and lugubrious appearance is deceptive, and her ability to impose her will rivals that of Yoda, as she finagles her way onto Bennett’s property. It’s not long before he’s providing basic utilities and cleaning her feces off the side of his waste bins (I could imagine that his play inspired the Stiller/Barrymore comedy “Duplex”). “The Lady in the Van” is a semi-autobiographical period piece that is as much self-reflection as it is a study of the titular vagabond. Brilliant actor Alex Jennings plays Bennett in a manner of split consciousness—the man writing the story and the one living it, the latter of whom occasionally crosses the time-space continuum for a quick fact-check—as the mildly tortured narrator recalls with an almost wistful disdain how he came to know his unlikely muse in the early ‘70s. It is comic poetry that Jennings delivers with such a rich eloquence that it could make a dog fart sound sophisticated. His irritation ever so slightly overshadowed by his fascination, Bennett comes to find that the woman’s real name is Margaret Fairchild, a woman on the lam after a hit-and-run. Her amusing little idiosyncrasies – intolerance of music, for one — reveal themselves to be childhood trauma; her paranoia, a constant fear of being arrested (Jim Broadbent plays a pursuing investigator). Bennett, himself, does not have a particularly deep connection with his own mother (Gwen Taylor), a relationship that tempers his sardonic veneer and gives the character and his relationship with Shepherd some depth. “The Lady in the Van” has a wry Brit-wit that comes off like a cross between Bill Bryson and Edgar Wright, which the amazing Maggie Smith plays to, while fully realizing the tragedy of her character.
Opens in Washington, DC on Friday January 22nd
— M. Parsons