In ‘Lady in the Van,’ Maggie Smith recreates her stage triumph (Our grade: B)

Maggie Smith in "The Lady in the Van." (Nicola Dove/Sony Pictures Classics)

Maggie Smith in “The Lady in the Van.” (Nicola Dove/Sony Pictures Classics)

By Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune

In 1974, by reluctant invitation, a homeless but not vanless woman by the name of Mary Shepherd parked her banged-up vehicle in the driveway of the Camden Town home belonging to playwright, novelist and humorist Alan Bennett. A former concert pianist of shadowy circumstance, Shepherd was well-known as a vagabond in this rapidly gentrifying part of London. With a mixture of timidity, kindness, inertia and privileged guilt, Bennett let her stay on his patio. For 15 years.

The anecdote grew into a cottage industry. Bennett wrote about his neighbor in various forms: in a London Review of Books essay; in a 1999 play starring Maggie Smith, who recreated the role 10 years later for a BBC radio adaptation; and now, in a Bennett-revised screenplay hewing closely to his play, a film directed by Nicholas Hytner, who staged the theatrical version.

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