As rude, benighted and uncivilized a culture as we are, America doesn’t designate and venerate people as Living National Treasures the way Japan does, or Australia. And even if we did, we couldn’t claim British actress Maggie Smith for our own. But hasn’t the incomparable Dame Maggie more than earned elevation to the status of International Treasure by now?
Even if you think yourself too old for the Harry Potter movies, too young for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or too hip for Downton Abbey, surely you’ve seen her in something that made you shake your head in awed admiration. Onstage or onscreen, no one can confound an adversary with a single scathing quip like Smith. She can be imperious or vulnerable, foolish or wise, charming or maddening. And in her latest big-screen outing, The Lady in the Van, the two-time Oscar-winner manages them all with aplomb and a lifetime’s worth of well-honed thespian technique.
The Lady in the Van started out as a 1989 memoir by English playwright Alan Bennett (Beyond the Fringe, The Madness of King George, The History Boys) and made the transition to the stage ten years later. It’s a “mostly true” story of a daft, cantankerous old bag lady (Smith, natch) who, in the 1970s, started living in her van after a collision with a motorcyclist convinced her that the police were after her. She parks in front of various townhomes on a residential street in London’s artsy Camden Town neighborhood – to varying degrees of welcome by the neighbors so “honored” – and when threatened with arrest for vagrancy, installs herself and her garishly painted vehicle in Bennett’s driveway. She stays there for 15 years.
Filmed in the actual location where the story unfolded, The Lady in the Van is, on one level, an exploration of the effect of this remarkably irritating woman on the equally unsociable playwright’s existence. The play and the movie depict Bennett as two people played by the same actor, Alex Jennings: one of them the Writer and the other the person who must interact with the rest of the world. Unbeknownst to herself, it’s the destiny of the Lady in the Van to guide the halves of this split personality back together, willy-nilly.
There are other mildly fantastical elements in the screenplay, which might’ve turned out excessively fey and twee if not for the grounding presence of Smith, who has made this role her own since it first appeared onstage. Miss Mary Shepherd – as she’s known to the inhabitants of Gloucester Crescent – is no twinkly dispensary of sage advice or fairy-godmother blessings. She’s stinky, nasty, uncooperative and self-absorbed, rationalizing her endless impositions by “guidance” from the Blessed Virgin and incapable of expressing an iota of gratitude for any of the neighbors’ many acts of generosity. She has a whim of iron, but whimsical she is not.
Bennett gets drawn into Miss Shepherd’s mad drama much against his will, projecting his guilt over avoiding his own mentally declining mother (Gwen Taylor) onto this unwanted guest; but they grudgingly learn to live together. The pious old lady turns a blind eye to the closeted gay playwright’s late-night male visitors, except to warn him that they might be Communists. Bennett, for his part, has his curiosity piqued by her fluency in French and her inexplicable, exaggerated aversion to music, even as he regularly has to clear up her feces from his driveway. Eventually he discovers that Miss Shepherd was once a promising concert pianist, real name Margaret Fairchild, who played in the prestigious Proms before a mental breakdown led to a stint in a convent and the forced renunciation of music as penance.
There are more secrets to unearth on both sides, of course; but mystery isn’t the point here. The Lady in the Van is an essentially heartwarming story well-armored with prickly humor, and Smith is deliciously, exasperatingly real as the unlovable, entitled, batty old crone. Jennings does a great job too – ably assisted by a fine ensemble cast, especially Frances de la Tour as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ widow Ursula – but this show rightly belongs to Maggie Smith. She’s appalling, she’s repellent, she’s the neighbor you’d never want; but you can’t take your eyes off her. It’s a bravura performance from the 82-year-old Duchess of Disdain. Long may her reign endure!
The Lady in the Van is currently playing at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. Upstate Films is located at 6415 Montgomery Street in Rhinebeck. For more info call (845) 876-2515 or visit https://upstatefilms.org.