Review: The Lady in the Van at Sheringham Little Theatre

Sarah Westlake stars as Miss Shepherd in the CSODS production of The Lady in the Van.

Sarah Westlake stars as Miss Shepherd in the CSODS production of The Lady in the Van. - Credit: Sue Bignell Photography

Some guests just don't know when to leave. 

This maxim has rarely rung truer than in the case of Miss Shepherd, the van-dwelling former nun who parks her van on the front porch of playwright Alan Bennett home for three months - and stays for 15 years. 

The connection between the two of them - and the gradually unravelling questions over Miss Shepherd's lifestyle - are at the core of The Lady in the Van.  

Who is the rather hostile man who now and then bangs on the side of the van making demands? What led Miss Shepherd to this lifestyle in the first place? And just where does she go to the loo? The truth is perhaps messier and more tragic than even the back of the vehicle itself.

The play, based on the 2015 film starring Maggie Smith, is the first by the Cromer and Sheringham Operatic and Drama Society (CSODS) since February 2020. 

The amazing thing is most of the story appears to be true - Bennett's Camden Town home was host to a real 'lady in the van' - Margaret Mary Fairchild - who started out on the periphery of his life and ended up becoming central to it.

Sarah Westlake is a delight as the malodorous Miss Shepherd, pushing the limits of her host's hospitality with the determination and joie de vivre that only someone who "drove ambulances during the blackout" can muster. 

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Bennett is played by Paul James in the 'present' and Robin Taylor as a later version, looking back as the narrator. They both do a fantastic job of bringing the sardonic Yorkshireman to life, and Taylor delivers the playwright's monologues and musings with confident aplomb. 

Initially barely tolerant of his unbidden guest, Bennet comes to an almost grudging realisation that kindness is the way to go, and lifechanging relationships can form in the unlikeliest of places. 

After the world-changing events of the past two years, it seems somehow fitting that a show with such universal themes is how CSODS is returning to the stage. Well done to the cast and crew on a brilliantly funny, heartfelt production.

Runs until Saturday, February 12.