The Lady In The Van - Proscenium, Compass Theatre, November 5-8

Alan Bennett has been in the news recently for donating all his literary archives to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

What distinguishes him from peers, such as Harold Pinter and Ted Hughes, is that he did not demand an indecently high payment for them, but gave them freely as a gift.

This rare act of philanthropy singles Bennett out as a very unusual man, as does the story behind the writing of The Lady In The Van.

The play tells the history of the real long-term relationship between Bennett and Miss Mary Shepherd.

Having lived in a succession of broken-down vans in close proximity to Bennett's Camden home, and being abused by numerous hooligans, Miss Shepherd was granted sanctuary in Bennett's driveway, where she stayed until her death.

I cannot imagine why anyone would be happy to permit an insanitary, unbalanced and ungrateful old woman to live on their property for 15 years in a derelict Bedford van, and subsequently in a lean-to, but that is precisely what Bennett did.

During the years of the unconventional Miss Shepherd's residence in his driveway, Bennett, a keen diarist, wrote a lot of material referring to her and, after being deeply moved by her death, wanted to do something productive with his notes.

He knew that Miss Shepherd's character and behaviour were dramatic, but it took him a further 10 years before he partnered her with two Alan Bennetts in this stage version.

The first Bennett, played here by Charles Anthony, is the one who deals directly with Miss Shepherd, and is often irritated by, and resentful of, his unwelcome guest. The second Bennett, played by Mark Sutherland, watches from the sidelines and is amused not only by Miss Shepherd's eccentricities and hilarious conversations with the Virgin Mary, but also by the way his younger persona allows himself to be frustrated by her.

As the play progresses it becomes increasingly evident what an odd couple Bennett and Miss Shepherd are, especially as the former seems to benefit very little from the arrangement.

Miss Shepherd never once thanks Bennett for his generosity and, according to one legend not mentioned in the play, she even used to yell at his guests to shut up if they were too noisy - most notably terrifying the horror king Vincent Price!

Miss Shepherd, played brilliantly by Anne Gerrard, is clearly not quite right in the head. It gradually emerges that in her younger days she had trained as a concert pianist, but gave that up in a doomed attempt to be a nun and ultimately, despite having thousands of pounds squirreled away, become, in effect, a bag lady.

Her ramblings suggest that she was "possibly" (her favourite word) involved in a serious accident some time after the Second World War, and lost her mind as a result.

Proscenium can always be relied upon to stage a first class production, and this one, directed by Linda Hampson, was no exception.

The three principals gave flawless performances, despite the huge amount of dialogue they needed to memorise.

* Proscenium will be back at the Compass Theatre in January 2009, with Broken Glass by Arthur Miller. For details visit  or call 020 8866 7075.