Though the title role was originated 20 years ago by Maggie Smith, who also interpreted her for the 2015 cinematic adaptation, Alan Bennett’s eponymous lady in the van could have been written for Miriam Margolyes. Funny, indomitable and with a manner of speaking the Queen’s English that turns any comment, no matter how banal or ridiculous, into oration, the British-Australian actress is the undoubted star of this first Melbourne Theatre Company outing for 2019; the compelling star around whom the rest of this otherwise cautious production’s cast orbit, like planets and moons of varying note.

Miriam Margolyes. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The Lady in the Van is based on the real-life relationship between Bennett, the renowned British writer whose other plays include The History Boys, and a vagrant who called herself Mary Shepherd. She parked her dilapidated van, which was also her home, outside his London house, then in the front yard at Bennett’s invitation – an invitation that the play suggests was extended partly through reluctant kindness, partly writerly curiosity.

There she remained for 15 years, until she died in her van in 1989, a malodorous, curmudgeonly and mysterious woman to the last....