Teasingly billed as “a mostly true story”, The Lady In The Van is an entertaining screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s award-winning 1999 play, based on his experiences of a sharp-tongued vagrant called Miss Shepherd, who camped outside his driveway for more than 15 years.
The playwright has lovingly adapted his stage work, employing the same cute theatrical device of the real Alan and an internal self, who endlessly pontificate on the tramp’s shady past as they mooch about a north London home.
Dame Maggie Smith reprises her eye-catching stage role as the eponymous and fragrant tramp, unleashing an array of withering putdowns that would surely have her imperious Dowager in Downton Abbey clucking with approval.
It’s a tour-de-force performance, tinged with pathos and regret, which reminds us Smith is a gifted physical comedian, as well as a twinkly-eyed sniper with a sardonic one-liner.
Alan (Jennings) moves into a house in Camden and befriends well-to-do neighbours, including opera fans Rufus (Roger Allam) and Pauline (Deborah Findlay), who live opposite, and statuesque Ursula Vaughan Williams (Frances de la Tour).
Soon after, a cantankerous woman called Miss Shepherd (Smith) settles in their street in her ramshackle vehicle, and bullies Alan into pushing her transport, when it refuses to start during a downpour.
When council bureaucracy threatens the old woman’s future, the playwright foolishly agrees to let her take up temporary residence on his driveway for a few weeks.
Months turn into years, and the playwright despairs as he becomes Miss Shepherd’s guardian and suffers regular visits from interfering social services worker Miss Briscoe (Cecilia Noble).
When a police officer called Underwood (Jim Broadbent) begins to harass the old woman late at night, Alan speculates about her former life.
Meanwhile, Miss Shepherd seeks forgiveness for unspoken sins in the confessional of the local priest (Dermot Crowley).
“Absolution is not like a bus pass,” the holy man tenderly proclaims. “It does not run out.”
The Lady In The Van is an amusing and heart-warming tonic for these cold winter months.
Director Nicholas Hytner, who helmed the Olivier Award-nominated stage production, reunites with his leading lady with obvious relish.
He also includes cameos for most of the cast of The History Boys, his last collaboration with Bennett, including James Corden as a market trader, whose cheeky banter fails to curry favour with Miss Shepherd.
Supporting characters are sketched lightly in comparison, but all observe Smith’s virtuoso performance with admiration.