It is said that charity begins at home. For Alan Bennett, the well known British Author, it began at the bottom of his drive with a custard yellow van inhabited by an irascible eccentric who refused to budge for 15 years. Where others might have seen an obstruction, Bennett spotted an opportunity. Miss Shepherd, who claimed at various times to be a former nun and concert pianist, gave the writer much, in addition to the task of clearing polythene bags of dried faeces from the garden. Having expanded the experience from a diary entry into a short story, a radio serialisation and finally an award-winning play, he must have come to feel that the poop-scooping was ultimately worth it.
Though the play presents a hilarious catalogue of Miss Shepherd's foibles, it is more of a dramatic meditation on the moral justification of exploiting ourselves and others for the sake of art. Bennett was clearly in two minds over his uninvited tenant, and explores the nature of the dilemma by dramatising himself twice. A pair of identical Alans deliver a Tweedledum-Tweedledee commentary on the social issue developing on their doorstep: intellectual Alan maintains an objective, writerly interest, while practical Alan deals with the day-to-day irritation. Simply put, one finds material where the other finds only waste material.
There's a further psychological thread which teases out the extent to which Bennett's obsession with Miss Shepherd was a displacement activity designed to assuage nagging guilt about his mother's dementia. Fiz Marcus is particularly poignant in the few scenes allotted to the increasing disorientation of Bennett's Mam.
But it's really a star turn – or more specifically, a star three-point-turn – for Nichola McAuliffe, who backs the noisome vehicle centre-stage while making the balletically incomprehensible hand signals that were Miss Shepherd's trademark. McAuliffe resists the temptation to overplay Miss Shepherd's dottiness, but bestows her with a dignified, almost regal air, despite compulsive scratching at intimate itches one prefers not to think about.
Theatre Royal Brighton