With a screenplay by Bennett himself from his memoirs of his time in the company of this lady in the van, this is a delightfully witty and gentle comedy that never fails to draw a warm-natured smile. If you are familiar with the writing of Alan Bennett, you’ll already be well aware of what to expect. Here, like in all of his work, he is honest and genuine, full of spirit and a verbal dexterity that can only be admired if you’re a true lover of wordplay.
Detailing the experiences of this notable and ostensibly English playwright, split into two polarised characters for the purposes of ‘doer’ and ‘writer’, as all writers themselves will recognise, the story is simple and comparatively familiar to many that will recognise Smith’s eccentric character. If pressed, most of the audience drawn to this feature will be of a certain age, and will no doubt be able to draw upon personal experiences of their own with at least one person in their past or present that echoes the traits of this ex-habit covered, ambulance driver with a penchant for the piano forte.
Hytner’s direction is as subtle and nuanced as Bennett’s creation and does occasionally become a little too embroiled in rose-tinted recollection, guilty only as much as the writers’ depiction of a character that has long since left an indelible imprint on his memory, embellished though it may be for the purposes of entertainment. Nevertheless, this is never less than charming and Alex Jennings’ portrayal of Bennett is as good as anything you are likely to witness elsewhere, which must have been quite the task, given that Bennett himself was responsible for the screenplay and at one point, even makes a cameo appearance. No pressure then, eh?
In all, Bennett proves once again, were it needed, that his grasp of language and his ability to eulogise his characters with such rounded complexity and emotional completion is as strong as it has ever been, even if this maybe doesn’t stray quite far enough away from safe ground for those of us that would like to see him spread his wings beyond what is little more than a monologue brought to vibrancy by the power of performance.
Eminently watchable throughout, nonetheless, this is a delight for Bennett lovers and Maggie Smith fans everywhere, as you get precisely what you would expect from both. Reliable, robust and worthy of your time.