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Review of The Lady in the Van by Stamford Shakespeare Company at Rutland Open Air Theatre at Tolethorpe Hall

Angela Harris taking a lead role in a play at Tolethorpe Hall, in my experience, guarantees you’re in for a good night.

And The Lady in The Van – one of three plays being performed as part of Stamford Shakespeare Company’s 2023 season at the Rutland Open Air Theatre – was no different.

Harris is Miss Shepherd and lady seems too polite a word to describe this cantankerous and quite frankly, rude, character.

Angela Harris in the lead role of Miss Shepherd in The Lady in The Van
Angela Harris in the lead role of Miss Shepherd in The Lady in The Van

But she’s not just a character. Based on playwright Alan Bennett’s own experience with a woman who drove her van into his garden, intending to stay for three months but living there for 15 years, Stamford Shakespeare Company’s version shows two Alans – one at the heart of the story (Paul Beesley) interracting with Miss Shepherd, his neighbours and the people who come into their shared life – and another (Steve Cunningham) narrating the story, often interracting with his counterpart and speaking directly to the audience.

Having seen Harris several times, most recently in 2019’s Blythe Spirit, her comic timing is always spot on. A particularly funny moment comes when she is loaded into the back of an ambulance and rises slowly above a wall, glaring out grumpily into an audience. She doesn’t steal the show – she IS the show and it is clear that centre stage is her favourite place to be.

She is well-supported on stage not just by the two Alans but in particular by David Fensom and Lucie Swannell in the roles of posh neighbours Rufus and Pauline, who have no time at all for Miss Shepherd who they rather wish was six feet under .

Another special mention must be given to Miss Shepherd’s van, a character in its own right, spins around revealing its secrets and even getting a makeover of sorts on stage.

It is the company’s policy that there is no curtain call at any of the plays it stages – something which always seems a huge shame to me – but theatre-goers leaving their seats to head home for the night spotted Harris darting out of the van to head backstage and she was rewarded for her efforts with an impromptu round of applause. It was richly deserved.

The Lady in the Van continues throughout August, along with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and As You Like It.

Have you seen a show you’ve enjoyed? Send your reviews to: smeditor@stamfordmercury.co.uk

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