In this hugely enjoyable film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s 1999 National Theatre play, The Lady in the Van, Maggie Smith reprises her stage and radio role as the cranky bag lady who parked her decrepit van in Bennett’s Camden driveway sometime in the late 1960s and didn’t budge from the spot until her death 15 years later.
As imperiously rude as the Dowager Countess of Grantham but considerably less fragrant, Smith’s Miss Shepherd is a glorious comic creation, a pungent mix of dottiness and iron will – ‘I’ve had guidance from the Virgin Mary,’ she reveals when her parking arrangements are questioned, combining the two – but there is pathos beneath the carapace of eccentricity, with glimpses here of a fretful, turbulent past as both nun and concert pianist.
A worthy foil for Smith, Alex Jennings plays two cheek-by-jowl versions of Bennett himself, a bickering double act of Bennett the writer and Bennett the man, one aware of the copy to be mined from his accidental neighbour, the other wary of the mess she leaves behind.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner (Bennett’s past collaborator on those stage-to-screen hits The Madness of King George and The History Boys), the film gains an extra fillip from being filmed in the same street (Gloucester Crescent) and house (Bennett’s own) where the original events took place.
The Lady in the Van screens as the Centrepiece Gala at the Odeon Leicester Square at 7.15pm tonight and also shows at 11.30am tomorrow. The film goes on general release from Friday 13th November.