First published in The Times, Tuesday July 14 2015
Faced with the prospect of having a stranger’s Bedford van parked in their driveway for more than a decade, most homeowners would have seen red. Alan Bennett, however, spotted a creative opening in his uninvited guest’s filthy clothes, offhand manner and ripe odour. His 15-year relationship with the eccentric, reactionary Miss Shepherd would ultimately lead the playwright to pen a radio series, a play and a feature film, to be released later this year.
The stage play – first performed at the Queen’s Theatre, London, in 1999, and revived here as part of Pitlochry’s summer season – is in part a chronicle of Miss Shepherd’s comic adventures, with much of its humour derived from her queenly sense of entitlement and peculiar routines, including her habit of leaving bags of excrement lying around for Bennett to pop in the bin. At the deeper level it’s also a meditation on the ethical dilemma faced by any artist who is tempted to draw on other people’s lives and stories as source material.
Hence in the play we witness a pair of Bennetts (played in Patrick Sandford’s efficiently choreographed production by Mark Elstob and Ronnie Simon), the first immersed in the action, the second preoccupied with the business of giving shape to “a life besides which mine was just dull”.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Although various supporting characters come into Miss Shepherd’s orbit, including a condescending social worker (Ceri-lyn Cissone) and Bennett’s bemused metropolitan liberal neighbours (Thomas Heard and Emma Odell), the play is built around a single meaty lead role. Jacqueline Dutoit gives a rich, convincing performance as the eponymous heroine, capturing her imperious self-belief while offering powerful glimpses of a debilitating inner torment. Margaret Preece is also moving as Bennett’s Mam, slowly succumbing to dementia but still lucid enough to be intimidated by her son’s neighbour. “With her being educated, I wouldn’t know what to say to her.”
Intriguingly, in an overlong play that emerges as an entreaty to look beyond labels such as homelessness and mental illness to the person beneath, it is the character of Bennett himself that remains impenetrable. Although, in Sandford’s production, Elstob and Simon do a fine job of impersonating the famous author’s appearance and intonation, and there are hints in the script at his struggles with his sexuality, the playwright rarely allows his audience to penetrate much beyond his own carefully cultivated public persona. Unlike the lady in the van, Bennett the man remains something of an enigma.