This production is directed by Dean Bryant, stars Miriam Margoyles and, at first glance, encapsulates everything I am wary of when it comes to main stage theatre. A reliance on a famous international actor (albeit one that has recently become an Australian citizen), partnered with a well known international play and a resident director. It is very safe, even by the standards of Melbourne Theatre Company. Although everything about the show is indeed free from risk, it is nonetheless very entertaining watch.
The Lady in the Van is now a well known story. The tale of the old lady who parked her van in playwright Alan Bennett’s street and didn’t leave for 15 years has been retold as a book, radio play, film and stage play. The plot follows Alan Bennett, split into two parts for two actors, as he negotiates his way through life sandwiched between his senile Mam, his upper middle class neighbours and the lady who lives in the van.
An actor does not reach the level of acclaim that Margoyles holds without talent, and she makes good use of it in the starring role of Ms Shepherd. She develops a strong, distinctive character who has both excellent comic timing and the ability to deliver poignant dramatic monologues. Similarly, Daniel Frederiksen and James Millar who play Alan Bennett 1 and 2 respectively, are to be commended. Millar has great tracts of complicated text which rely on pinpoint accuracy in their delivery if they are to have the desired effect on the audience. Fortunately he wraps his tongue around each syllable and executes the dense language with seeming ease.
The script in its entirety is indeed wordy and idiosyncratic. Comic but touching and with a slow stream of meta theatricality winding its way throughout. Outside of the two Bennetts and Ms Shepherd however, the barrage of other characters are decidedly lacking in substance. This is not helped by a set design that has both Bennett’s Mam (well captured by Jillian Murray) and neighbouring couple (played by Dalip Sondhi and Fiona Choi) literally shot on and off stage on a horizontal track. This gives the appearance that their bodies are just as two dimensional as their personalities. Fortunately the rest of the set (designed by Alicia Clements) makes up for this shortcoming, with frequent stunning tableaux and a spectacular lantern display, not to mention two large magnificent vans.
Ultimately, this show will bring in the people. It is suited to the the company’s older audience demographic, and thus is bound to be a success. And it is indeed a polished piece of theatre. But with this year promising some of the most conservative programming I have seen in some time from Melbourne Theatre Company, I am left wishing they had begun the season with something a little more fiery.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Lady in the Van runs from the 2 February – 9 March 2019 at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse.
Photography by Helen Maybanks.