The Lady in the Van at Theatre Royal Bath

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Posted on 24th August 2017

The Lady in the Van

Theatre Royal Bath

22 August, 2017

The eccentric Miss Shepherd, iconic character in Alan Bennett's comedy, is brought very much to life by Sara Kestelman in this new stage production directed by Jonathan Church.

While Maggie Smith's definitive portrayal in the 2015 film version of The Lady in the Van is a hard act to follow, Oliver-award winner Kestelman absolutely nails the eccentricities of the van dweller with her own captivating performance.

Bennett described Miss Shepherd as as “a bigoted, blinkered, cantankerous, devious, unforgiving, self-centred, rank, rude, car-mad cow”. She arrived in her van in the author's street in Camden, London, in the late 1960s before moving on to his front garden to escape the attentions of louts and parking wardens. Here she stayed until her death 15 years later.

Bennett eventually immortalised her in a short story and then a play in 1999 and now, nearly 20 years on from the first stage production,  Miss Shepherd – sometime ambulance driver, possibly a nun and concert pianist – once again delights a theatre audience. 

You couldn't make her up, and Kestelman fully explores the nuances of this enigmatic character in whose daily life politics and religious visions chaotically intermingled.

Performances are excellent throughout with William Gaunt and Sam Alexander playing Bennett himself, the double act described by the author as 'the self who does the writing and the self who does the living’. 

Bennett's acerbic wit is given full rein a supporting cast of characters that includes comic neighbours torn between their liberal views and distaste at the squalor before them.

Miss Shepherd's quirky religiosity is highlighted by the beauty of composer Matthew Scott's music and, following her death, by the assumption of her van heavenwards thanks to the theatrically divine intervention of holy ropes and pulleys. 

Without prior acquaintance with the story the denouement is possibly a little hard to disentangle, although there's no mistaking the triumphant celebration of an extraordinary character and Bennett's own compassion towards his unasked-for lodger. 

The audience loved this production, showing appreciation with sustained applause and reserving the loudest cheers for Sara Kestelman's outstanding portrayal in a poignant comedy.

The Lady in the Van is at the Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 2 September. Tickets are available from the box office on 01225 448844 or online at

Jackie Chappell



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