The Brighton Open Air Theatre was full of joy, not just because of theatre starting again after recent uncertain times, but due to The Lady in the Van being the opening show of the fringe festival.
An extremely strong start to the fringe and will definitely be one of the plays everyone will remember
Alan Bennett wrote this piece after he met Mary Teresa Sheppard; a troubled woman who parked her van in his garden in Camden for 15 years after fleeing the scene of a tragic hit and run accident. This unique friendship stayed with him for a very long time well after her death and it seemed from the writing that he wanted to in his own way highlight the impact that mental health has on everyone; good or bad.
The majority of the audience who attended would have seen the film that brought this play into the limelight starring Maggie Smith, so the stakes were high. What evolved was a piece that was poignant, funny and educational.
The simple scenery involved a few tables and chairs on one side of the stage to indicate Bennett's home and on the other, a well constructed movable frame to indicate the van. It gave a clear distinction between the home and the street. At times, that simplicity was all that was visually needed to show the harsh contrast of a comfortable home versus the outside world. But it also explored symbolically that perceptions of what we think we know can be completely different. For instance, during this period, Bennett's mother was going through her own physical and mental health journey at the time that he and Mary talked. In a weird sort of way at that moment, their worlds became the same in the sense of what we see as being trapped in our own hell – especially as Mary did not like being incarcerated in an asylum prior to meeting Bennett.
The Sarah Mann Company not only brought The Lady in the Van to life on stage, but made each character well rounded and engaging. The older and younger Alans (played by Paul Moriaty and Nathan Ariss) had a good connection as the younger Alan (Ariss) took us through the story, whilst the older Alan (Moriaty) taunted him for things he hadn't done or said to her to balance everything out. Sarah Mann gave an insightful and powerful performance as Miss Shepherd – she displayed both eccentricity as well as a vulnerability that moved the audience as she at times reflected on her painful past. Plus special mentions have to go to Pip Henderson, Jack Kristiansen, Nick Bartlett and Harry Bain as they played various colourful characters to aid the story.
The Lady in the Van was an extremely strong start to the fringe and will definitely be one of the plays everyone will remember for its insightful take on friendships and acceptance, as well as extremely memorable performances that were sensitive and aptly funny.