The Lady in The Van actor Angela Harris reflects on run at Tolethorpe Hall
As the final week of performances at Tolethorpe Hall get underway, the lead actor in The Lady in The Van is reflective.
While ‘lady’ might seem the wrong word for the cantankerous, dishevelled and smelly Miss Shepherd at the heart of Alan Bennett’s play, it is spot on for Angela Harris, the actor who has played her this summer.
Angela identifies with the character although she can’t quite put a finger on why. The only thing she seems to have in common is their age – 78.
“It is really quite a story and I think a lot of people are surprised by how poignant it is,” said Angela. “She did have a really difficult life. I have loved every single moment – it has been a lovely part to play.”
It is a long-standing tradition that there are no curtain calls at Tolethorpe but, despite this, Angela feels the character has been well-received.
“I don’t really mind about the curtain calls,” she said. “You have a feeling and can tell when the audience is enjoying it. It is easy to get the laughs but in those more poignant scenes, when she’s talking about her life and what could have been, you can hear a pin drop and know the audience is with you.”
Auditioning for The Lady in The Van was a no-brainer for Angela, although during the audition she imagined she would be acting alongside a “cardboard van” – a far cry from the vehicles that appear on stage with Angela at the wheel. It’s a production with a lot that could go wrong but thankfully there have only been a few mishaps so far.
Although she is the central character and on stage throughout, she puts the success of the production down to directors Caroline Stephenson and David Fensom (David also plays Alan Bennett’s neighbour, Rufus).
“I have to say this cast has been so supportive. You don’t always get a cast that really gels. It’s just been amazing to work with all of them,” Angela said. “Caroline and David in particular have been so accommodating. I cannot thank them enough.”
When she’s not on stage, Angela is at home in nearby Little Casterton – just a stone’s throw from the theatre – caring for Ivor, her husband of 58 years, who is suffering with ill health. Many would not regard being on stage from 6.30pm until 10.30pm six nights a week a break, but Angela does. She also takes a great deal of joy from the couple’s energetic cavapoo puppy Betsy, and enjoys coffee, cake and a natter with her many friends, and playing the organ at the village church.
Ivor is “incredibly supportive” of Angela’s life on stage. Sadly his health has prevented him, for the first time, from watching her performance and from running lines. Her friends have stepped in to help although Angela admits: “If I like the part, I like learning the lines.”
Even as a girl, Angela had aspirations of becoming an actor, performing in shows while at school. But on finding out at the age of 11 from a Methodist minister that actors worked on Sundays, she put those dreams to one side. Having grown up with Methodist parents, church on Sunday was non-negotiable.
When she finished school, her parents moved to London to run a Methodist home for teenage boys. Angela went with them and became assistant matron.
When she met Ivor, she returned to Melton Mowbray and then Cambridgeshire, moving for Ivor’s work, and bringing up the couple’s two daughters.
When her daughters grew older, she became involved with the Queen Mother Theatre in Hitchin, gained an agent and was given several auditions. But when her father fell ill, her ambitions of becoming a professional actor were put to one side to care for him.
She has no regrets: “I have enjoyed my amateur life so much and there is so much wonderful amateur theatre out there. It has been a joy to be involved.”
Angela and Ivor moved to Little Casterton nearly 30 years ago and joined Stamford Shoestring soon after – she still performs with them although says the week-long shows are an easier commitment than Tolethorpe.
Through Shoestring Angela got to know Carol King, a director at Tolethorpe, who persuaded her to audition for the 2004 production of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.
Angela chooses the roles she auditions for carefully, determined to play only the parts she thoroughly enjoys. So her return to the Tolethorpe stage wasn’t until 2011 when she played Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. A run of Shakespeare plays followed – the 2013 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet in 2015 and Much Ado About Nothing in 2017.
A Midsummer’s Night Dream was a little marred – “I couldn’t work out why I was getting so out of breath every single night,” Angela recalled.
It turned out that she had a heart issue and a few months later, in December 2013, she underwent surgery to have an aortic valve replacement. She laughed as she described herself as a “liability” and cited breaking her ankle months before playing Madame Acarti in Blythe Spirit in 2019 as another example, although said “it was sheer willpower that got me on stage”.
In 2021’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Angela auditioned initially for the role of Miss Prism but was given the role of Lady Bracknell, which she admitted finding “a little intimidating”.
But there is nothing more intimidating than Shakespeare, she said, despite being a member of the Stamford Shakespeare Company.
“When I was first told about the Stamford Shakespeare Company, it gave me a little shudder,” she recalls. “I was scared of Shakespeare. I still am a bit really.”
Like many audience members she finds Shakespeare’s language a little difficult to get her head around and, as a result, takes no joy in performing it. A friend takes her every year to see Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, determined to help Angela find some enjoyment in the country’s most renowned playwright.
“I want the audience to enjoy it so I have to enjoy it,” Angela says. “There are some I like. I really did love playing the nurse in Romeo and Juliet though – that was a standout.”
But her favourite role has been Miss Shepherd. At the end of the week, when the run is over, the cast will get together to raise a glass and then it will be time for Angela to reflect on whether she will return to the stage.
“There’s not always a role for someone like me and I do wonder about going out on a high,” she said. “I’ve got a lot going on at the moment. But never say never.”
Tickets are available for The Lady in The Van, which continues its run from Monday, August 21, until Saturday, August 26.