12:00pm Friday 17th May 2002
ANN Rye knew of Miss Shepherd, the lady in the van, from reading Alan Bennett's collection of prose pieces, Writing Home. That alone, however, could not prepare her for the task of playing the cantankerous, eccentric old lady in Ian Brown's new revival of Bennett's play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.
"When the play came along, I nearly had a fit as it's such a long and tricky part - and when the character's real, you would love to know her accent, how she walked," Ann recalls. "But you know how actors are never satisfied: if I'd heard her, or seen her, then I might have said 'Oh, I couldn't possibly walk like her, talk like her', so I'll settle for not having known her."
The Lady In The Van presents a comic, tender account of the somewhat odd relationship between Leeds-born playwright Bennett and Miss Shepherd, who took up residence in his London garden along with her dilapidated Bedford van, at the writer's invitation. What was intended to be a temporary solution to her housing needs turned into a 15-year stay.
Ann was most struck by Miss Shepherd's "tragedy" and her obsession with religion. "I'm very aware of the tragedy of her life: being cut off from her piano playing in the prime of her life, but then, could she really have made it? Half way through a concert she might have got up and shouted at God," she says. "Her family dealt with that obsession in a very insufficient way."
In Bennett's portrait, he both likes and dislikes Miss Shepherd, and for all her negative characteristics, her innate dignity never diminishes.
"I find I have a lot of affection for this woman and I think she's more logical than you'd first think," says Ann, who duly gives an example. "Every time she changes subject, it's to steer Bennett away from what he was about to ask her."
Ann is only the third actress to have played Miss Shepherd, first Maggie Smith in London, then Ann's friend, Marcia Warren, in Birmingham and now Ann. "I don't think there's a role like her and Marcia said the same," she says. "I've played a lot of eccentrics - some would say I'm an old eccentric myself - and this role was first suggested to me when I was in the middle of doing Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit at the Bolton Octagon, which gave me the chance to read it twice and I decided I couldn't do it."
Nevertheless, she is doing it. "Gradually I talked myself into doing it, because we're always full of doubts in our own lives, aren't we?" Ann says.
Would she ever take to living in a van herself? "To be honest, no. It's terribly cramped, so I think I'd spare myself that. After this play, please don't invite me on holiday in a camper van. It's enough to have to climb in and out of this one and make sure I'm climbing out of the right bit!"
The Lady In The Van is parked at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until June 15. Box office: 0113 213 7700.
Updated: 09:34 Friday, May 17, 2002
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