Madeleine Davies

The Lady in the Van: review

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2015 at 10:40 pm

There is a scene in The Lady in the Van when two evangelists turn up on Alan Bennett’s doorstep and ask “Does Jesus Christ dwell in this house?” He gives them short shrift (“No. Try the van.”). But by this point it is abundantly clear that, when it comes to putting into practice the Gospel imperative, it is the doleful playwright at number 23 Gloucester Crescent who best rises to the challenge.

During the 15 years that Miss Shepherd stays in her van outside his house (and eventually in his drive)  he refuses to define their relationship. A social worker who describes him as her carer is furiously taken to task.

“I am not the carer. I hate caring. I hate the thought. I hate the word. I do not care and I do not care for. I am here; she is there. There is no caring.”

He will not accept responsibility for this cantankerous old woman, or accept congratulations for his apparent solicitude. It is not out of altruism that he has let her stay, he explains, but timidity and laziness.

One cynical neighbour is inclined to agree (“Kind? This London! No-one’s kind”).

Nevertheless, Bennett finds himself meeting the demands of his irascible neighbour, making her coffee, chasing off her tormenters, liaising with social services, and exerting himself behind her van, and eventually, her wheelchair.

Miss Shepherd is repeatedly described in the film as “a difficult woman”. She is rude, short-tempered and selfish. She never says thank you. Children in the street are scared of her. We probably all grew up knowing someone like her: an old woman pushing her life around in bags, possibly smelling bad, the subject of jokes and rumours. Probably she had a nickname crueller than that of the film’s title. Bennett makes it clear that those in need of our help are not always grateful, or even likeable. The business of looking after them is not romantic or, at least immediately, rewarding.

“Caring is about shit” he concludes, after clearing up the literal stuff Miss Shepherd has left in his drive.

“One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation,” he quips.

But as imperfect as Bennett is, and taking into account his own rather pessimistic interpretation of his motives, the contrast between his response to his neighbour and that of her church is marked.

When he goes to ask the nearby convent whether there is a nun who can help Miss Shepherd – a former Sister – with her shopping, he is told that no such nun exists. Reluctantly he is told that “We can pray, but you’ll have to fill in a form.”

It gradually becomes clear that the convent has played a terrible role in Miss Shepherd’s unravelling, stripping from her, through guilt, her greatest source of joy and solace.

Her fervent prayers and repeated, anguished confessions, do not appear to grant her any peace.

“Absolution is not like a bus pass,” her confessor tells her. “It doesn’t run out.”

But she remains, to some extent, a soul in torment.

Despite her frequent invocations of the Virgin Mary, the moments of release she finds are not inside a church building, but on a seaside carousel, in the act of defying a prohibition laid upon her, decades earlier, by the convent, and speeding downhill in her wheelchair.

This is just one story. In reality, churches are often at the forefront of helping the elderly, the lonely, the tormented. But it’s also a reminder that some of the stories people are dragging around, in trolleys piled high with carrier bags, will hinge on wrongs perpetrated by the church. That those who best reflect Christ’s love will not always be “Christians”. And that it is indeed possible to entertain angels without realising it.

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