The Sydney Morning Herald February 8, 2019 — 2.17pm There’s no one I’d rather see in the role of Miss Mary Shepherd – the bizarre and bull-headed homeless woman at the centre of Alan Bennett’s The Lady In The Van – thanMiriam Margolyes. Not even Dame Maggie Smith, whose performance in the 2015 film was showered in critical acclaim. Margolyes’ ability to impose herself onstage as an immoveable force, her Dickensian sense of character, her natural hilarity and talent for the grotesque, and the way she can render a comedic shell so precisely that the shape of the pain underneath becomes part of the armour – all these qualities make her the perfect choice to play an outsider who turns everyone else inside out. And she gives a star turn, in a production skewed to give even greater prominence to the part. The play might remind Australian audiences of Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch – another autobiographical comedy-drama about a playwright and an elderly battle-axe of a neighbour – though curiously the lack of balance in the dramatic dance between writer and subject (spiced up in the Katz play through self-deprecating whimsy on the part of the artist) is one of The Lady in the Van’s major failings. It’s almost as if Bennett knew it would be and so split himself into two characters – a literal Alan Bennett (Daniel Frederiksen) and a more bemused and distant Bennett, reflecting on and narrating events as a writer (James Millar) – to compensate. The complicating frame, the relationship between the two Bennetts, struggles to find a coherent theatrical purpose in this production. It’s supposed to be a portrait of the artist as victim and vampire, but the introverted drollery and repressed comedy of manners is never masterly enough to convince, leaving the device feeling like dramaturgical decoration rather than a focused dramatic lens. Margolyes, of course, might have been unstoppable even against worthier opposition. The brilliance of her performance lies in its compelling absurdity and instantly recognisable psychology; in the vision of extreme disempowerment fuelled by delusion, revved by force of will, and driven hell-for-leather into an absolute (if mock-heroic) command of the universe around her. Dean Bryant’s production is funny and touching and while it lets Margolyes shine, it doesn’t always carve out the psychological space that a memory play like this needs. Some of the supporting cast get there without much aid: Richard Piper in various cameos, Jillian Murray as Bennett’s dying mother, Dalip Sondhi and Fiona Choi as chatty neighbours, and Claire Healey as an upbeat social worker. In contrast, the Alans need to not only better crystallise elements of character but establish a more dynamic rapport to justify their doubling. But even if you are left unsatisfied or annoyed by the writer’s alter-egos, this is a production with an unmissable drawcard. Margolyes’ brilliant, cantankerous, all-conquering bag-lady is a force to be reckoned with, and sure to be one of the year’s stage highlights.
Posted : 8th February 2019