MANY people fondly remember the wonderful Susan Hampshire for her TV performances as Fleur in the original Forsyte Saga, Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair and Glencora in The Pallisers.

Now she is appearing at Malvern's Festival Theatre in a completely different kind of role, as the eccentric Miss Shepherd in Alan Bennett's The Lady in the Van.

Alan Bennett has a huge reputation as a writer who can combine uproarious comedy with sadness and tragedy. As so often with his plays, The Lady in the Van is based on a real experience. In this case it happened to Bennett himself.

A decrepit van ground to a halt outside his London home. Before too long it was actually in his garden, where its evil smelling occupant Miss Shepherd remained for the next 15 years.

The lady in question was a trained concert pianist, an ex-nun and a would-be prime minister. Bennett ended up having to turn down his music because of her complaints, recharging her van's flat battery and becoming her reluctant carer.

Maggie Smith first brought the part to the stage. Now Susan Hampshire is the first actress to take the play on tour. As a bonus, she will talk about her career at a fund-raising lunch at the Colwall Park Hotel, Malvern, on February 3. It should be a fascinating story, as a talent scout searching for someone to play Jean Simmons as a child spotted her on a train. She was aged just 10 and she got the part.

After waiting another 11 years to complete her education, Susan Hampshire conquered dyslexia to star in a glittering list of coveted roles.

The Lady in the Van runs in Malvern from January 31 to February 5. To book for the play and/or for lunch with the leading lady, ring 01684 892277.