Brighton: Lady in the Van with added poignancy for our times

Sarah Mann Company brings Alan Bennett’s The Lady In The Van to Brighton’s BOAT (open-air theatre) from Wednesday-Saturday, May 26-29 at 7pm (Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2pm).

Sarah Mann
Sarah Mann

Sarah, who will be the playing the lady in question, offers it as a perfect show for our times – one which talks about the compassion we need to show other people.

For the company, it will be their first time on stage since they played Abigail’s Party at BOAT last August: “Since then obviously we went back into another lockdown and there was no opportunity to do anything. It does feel strange that I haven’t been acting or directing or producing or even examining drama which is another thing I do. It just feels like we went into a cave for Christmas. I feel like an animal that is just coming out of hibernation!

“We decided about Christmas time on the actual play that we are going to do. And just as with Abigail’s Party last year, we wanted to do something that would lift people’s spirits. The atmosphere was great last year. It was more than the sum of its parts if you know what I mean. It was really quite moving to see a lot of old friends and a lot of people that we didn’t know and a lot of people who don’t usually go to the theatre… and of course there were also a lot of Abigail’s Party fanatics!”

Sarah will be hoping for more of the same with The Lady In The Van, a play which she describes as “a funny and poignant tale about the generosity of the human spirit, possibly.”

Possibly… because Alan Bennett would be “the last person to say that he was being compassionate and generous in allowing Miss Shepherd to live in his driveway for 15 years. He says it happened by accident. He would say that he just let it happen. But really it is for the audience to decide. But really what we wanted was a play about human compassion and about looking after other people.”

Many people will know the film. The play, which came first, is much more revue style. There will be two actors playing Alan Bennett, one playing Bennett the writer, the other playing the Bennett who interacts with the lady in the van in his driveway.

“The film is obviously more realistic in its structure because you can have vans and cars and different locations. Here we are asking the audience to use their imagination for all of that. The cast will probably be on stage all the time, and some of the actors will be donning different hats and costumes to become different characters so that’s what I mean about it being more in the style of a revue.”

Sarah will be playing Miss Shepherd: “In her youth we know that she was a hugely talented pianist who played concerts all over the world. We know that she became a nun twice. She was kicked out probably twice, certainly once. We know that she has committed a felony and that she had decided to live in her van and go on the run.

“So we have got a well-to-do woman who was a pianist and is perhaps slightly mentally challenged. She has had a chequered past, being in a nunnery, being at school, being a pianist, and she has become obsessed with God, possibly as some kind of mental illness.

“But she is not your normal tramp. But then what is a normal tramp? That’s the question. People become homeless and looked down upon, but where have they come from? We are all just a knife edge away from losing our homes.

“Think about the lockdown. I haven’t had any work. Lots of people haven’t had any work. You feel that people’s attitudes to the homeless still need to change…”

Brighton Open Air Theatre, Dyke Road Park, Hove, BN3 6EH; tickets £15 and concessions £13.50; family £45;

The production is supporting RISE, a Sussex-based charity that supports people affected by domestic abuse and violence.

Cast: Nathan Ariss, Nick Bartlett, Pip Henderson, Jack Kristiansen, Sarah Mann & Paul Moriarty”