Bennett is played with amused British low-keyed-ness (an ongoing topic of conversation in the movie) by Alex Jennings, and Miss Shepherd of course is Dame Maggie Smith, playing a role that’s not as far from the Dowager Countess of Grantham as you might initially expect.
“Miss Shepherd” is a bundle of contradictions. As an aging homeless woman partly dependent on the tolerance of others, she is wheedling, insinuating, and needy. However, she can also be imperious, rude, and ungrateful. Some of these are artifacts of her troubled past, but some are just her own crotchety character. Having known some individuals with “issues” ourselves, Georgie and I found the portrayal very creditable.
We never find out her entire story but do get enough bits to piece together her real name, and revelations about her relationships with music, the Catholic Church, mental health, and the police.
The piece is very much a tour de force for Dame Maggie, who claims by right every scene she is in, but Jennings very ably holds his own, especially given the script which allows him to literally talk to himself, as well as to the audience, a trademark of author Bennett’s plays.
It’s a very unusual story, particularly by American standards. Miss Shepherd survives not only on Bennett’s forbearance, but also on the bemused tolerance of the “liberal” people of Camden Town. Their willingness to allow the usually dirty and sometimes frightening old woman to squat among them passeth all understanding, save that the British tend to love their eccentrics. In America, at least one neighbor would have had police, lawyers, zoning, and health authorities thundering down on Bennett’s head.
Dame Maggie is worth the price of admission alone, but Jennings’ wry and understated performance is a pleasure, and they are supported by a comfortable and entertaining cast of faces familiar from British TV and film.
The ending is unexpectedly upbeat, but, as Bennett discussed (with Miss Shepherd, and with himself) there would come a point at which he could write whatever he wanted—so he did.
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