Lady’s life in a van

Alan Bennett's Lady in the Van parks up at Norwich Theatre Royal next week. EMMA LEE speaks to actress Nichola McAuliffe who takes on the role of the enigmatic Miss Shepherd in the semi-autobiographical play.

She may have been a nun, sells pencils and pamphlets and has an unexplained aversion to piano music - and she's on her way to Norwich Theatre Royal.

Following on from the huge success of productions of Enjoy and The History Boys which came to the city last year, Hull Truck's production of Alan Bennett's semi-autobiographical play The Lady in the Van parks up at the theatre from Monday.

It follows story of the curious and enigmatic Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van parked at the bottom of the much-loved writer's garden.

The poignant work draws on Bennett's real-life experiences when he allowed a lady called Mary Shepherd to move on to the drive of his London home after her van was attacked - a tenancy which remained in place for 15 years.

The lead role is played by award-winning Nichola McAuliffe.

An accomplished stage actress with an enviable CV, she won an Olivier Award for playing the Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium and Kate in Kiss Me Kate for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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On TV she played Sheila Sabatini in seven series of the hit comedy Surgical Spirit, appeared as Anita in Corona-tion Street and has had guest roles in other top shows including Doctor Who, My Family and Holby City.

Nichola stars opposite two actors who both play Alan Bennett during the course of the play: James Holmes, who was most recently seen playing restaurant owner Clive in BBC Two's comedy hit Miranda and played a range of characters on the Catherine Tate Show and Paul Kemp, who has enjoyed a varied acting career which includes a number of roles in Alan Ayckbourn plays at the writer's performing home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarbor-ough, and a range of TV programmes including Doctors, Black Books and the Bill.

Nichola says that it's a joy to be working with Bennett's words.

'For me he's certainly one of the top five, if not the top three living playwrights at the moment, no question,' she says.

Nichola says that she's looking forward to returning to Norwich. Previous appearances include a panto season playing Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk and she has nothing but praise for the theatre, its staff and the city.

'It's one of my favourite places,' she says. '[Norwich Theatre Royal chief executive] Peter Wilson is one of my oldest friends.

'The tech crew is one of the best in the country,' Nichola adds. 'They are the unsung heroes.'

Nichola knew she wanted to be an actress from an early age, when she was facing major surgery with a bleak prognosis.

'I had a brain operation when I was five and a half. I'd been cast as the angel in the nativity play. They said she's either going to die or be terribly disabled and probably won't be able to ever go back to a normal school if she does live. Two weeks later I was right as rain. I went back to school and they had only re-cast - I couldn't believe it.'

Nichola found herself on the back row of the chorus for what she vowed would be the last time.

She joined a local theatre group and then won places with the National Youth Theatre and the acclaimed Lamda theatre school. After leaving she got a job at Bon Marche at Brixton, A few weeks later she became a working actress - and has never stopped since.

Nichola knows that she is extremely lucky. 'That's not how it's supposed to happen,' she laughs.

Her West End appearances include Peter Hall's Wild Duck for which she won the Manchester Evening News Award, Hobson's Choice playing Maggie Hobson opposite Leo McKern and Queen Victoria in the RSC's Poppy, for which she won the Clarence Derwent Award.

And other theatre includes Portia in the Merchant of Venice and Katharine in Taming of the Shrew for Jude Kelly at West Yorkshire Playhouse and the one-person play Annie Wobbler which was written for her and directed by Arnold Wesker. She has also appeared in several operas and played Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus for the new Carl Rosa Company.

Having appeared on television, naturally Nichola gets recognised by the public. It's something she takes in her stride.

'Normally people are very polite. Sometimes you get someone who wants to show off. But most people are very very nice,' she says.

What advice would she give anyone considering a career on the stage?

'I take acting extremely seriously,' she says. 'The really big thing is are you an actor or a performer? Do you want people to look at you or the character? If you want people to look at you and give you a round of applause you're a performer.'

n The Lady in the Van is at Norwich Theatre Royal from June 20-25, �19-�5.50, 01603 630000,