A Rose by any other name… is Maureen Lipman

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A Rose by any other name… is Maureen Lipman

The iconic actress talks to Nicole Lampert about Passover, perverse casting and her powerful new one-woman show.


Many actors, as with all humans, start to lose their memory as they get older. At the age of 76, meanwhile, Dame Maureen Lipman is learning 46 pages of a script for her next project, which she is fitting around filming (and learning more lines for) Coronation Street. 

Forty-six pages is around two hours of talking and talking and talking; her latest project is a one-woman show so she doesn’t even have a fellow actor to bounce off. She’s learning as she walks in the park – muttering her lines to the surprise, one presumes, of fellow walkers, and she is getting her 10-year-old granddaughter to test her.

“There are parts that I think I know very well but when I start to say them out loud, I come up against a horrible, yawning abyss,” says the actress. “Of course, there is always the fear that it will happen on stage – but it does happen, and you soldier on. I don’t have courage in other ways – you won’t catch me on a roller coaster or bungee jumping, but I think this is pretty courageous because it frightens me.”

Actress Maureen Lipman after being made a Dame by the Prince of Wales during an investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle. Picture date: Wednesday October 27, 2021.

It is a Herculean task. And then there is the fact that the things she is talking about are hard – the hardest. Maureen is performing Martin Sherman’s one-woman show Rose – which she first performed last year in Manchester and at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park – which starts at a shiva and covers pogroms, the Holocaust and the immigrant experience. The play was first written for her, but she was 50 at the time and felt too young.

But she performed it on camera to raise money for theatres during the pandemic and there was a huge clamour for her to do it live – which she did to rave reviews. Now she is taking it to the Ambassadors Theatre in London’s West End for four weeks in May.

It takes a lot out of her. When she did it for eight weeks last year, she developed shingles. She looked to an unusual place for help.

“Once you’ve had chickenpox, the possibility of shingles is always there and one of the things you are meant to not do is get run down, but I got very run down before,” she says. “I did have a very nice conversation with a life coach who was very helpful, and I might talk to him again. One of the things I need is to sleep and also to not panic. That’s the whole thing, isn’t it? Don’t panic, remember it is all in your head. Remind yourself that, of course, you can do it and if you do make a mistake people won’t notice. And the other think you have to try and do is sleep.

Maureen Lipman in Coronation Street

“Something to lie down on is the only thing I ask for so that I can rest between performances. Over the years, I have tried to sleep on the floor, but it’s much more comfortable to have an actual sofa in my dressing room. I also know I need to try not to sentimentalise Rose – to remember it is just a role – but it does feel almost impossible not to get dragged in.”

It sounds rather a lot to be taking on, but Maureen admits that the terror goes hand in hand with the joy. “When it goes well, it is like an adrenaline boost from heaven,” she raves. “It isn’t a polemic but a story – an incredible story. It is amazing to think what human beings can survive. It is impossible not to look at this play and see the horror of being a refugee. It’s not just what the Nazis did, but the English did too – how they bombed the refugees after the war. There is a universal culpability when it comes to our tribe.

“Martin has written some fantastic words and I am enjoying the best of my career with this. I have had to kiss a lot of frogs – change a lot of lines – to get a chance to do something like this. I’ve had some great jobs in my life, but to be doing Martin Sherman and then, on the other hand, working in the National Theatre of television, which is Coronation Street, is heaven.

Maureen as Rose

“People don’t understand. Prince Charles – as he was then – asked me about it when I got my gong [in 2021]: about how I could do it every night, but I told him the audience is always different. It never gets boring because every night you are talking to different people.”

She admits she’d like to be doing more than four weeks but Coronation Street, in which she plays the wonderful battleaxe Evelyn Plummer, would only allow her that amount of time off.

When we speak, the actress, who commutes every week from her home in London to Manchester, where the soap is filmed, is pondering her latest battle with the soap bosses: seder night. “I’m debating Passover with Coronation Street because there has been a lapse in which they were not told I needed to be home for seder night,” she says. “I will be home. And I will do things to a poor little lamb. I will be ringing everyone when I realise I don’t have enough Haggadahs and will forget what goes on the seder plate, as I do every year. And there will be a fight among the grandchildren over what we do every year. ‘That’s what we do’, as Rose says in our play, we need ritual.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Alan Davidson/Shutterstock (7543403i)
Evening Standard Film Awards at the Savoy Hotel Maureen Lipman with her late husband Jack Rosenthal
2000 Evening Standard Film Awards at the Savoy Hotel – 06 Feb 2000

Friday night dinners are one of her favourite rituals, partly because they remind her of her husband, the acclaimed playwright Jack Rosenthal, who died of multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer, in 2004.

“I got the message about Friday nights when Jack was ill because it meant so much to him to see a gathering of people around the table – he loved the idea that the family came together on a Friday night and we’ve kind of kept that up even if it’s not always possible,” she says. “Friday nights are a lovely way to finish the week. The dog sits under the table and as soon as I go near the candles she waits for her piece of challah.”

Maureen is unashamedly Jewish; she speaks up against antisemitism and other wrongs she sees being committed and is a rare famous Zionist. Perhaps that’s because she first found fame when Jews were – oh so briefly – flavour of the month.

“When I was growing up, we were the fashionable ethnic group,” she laughs. “Partly because of what happened in the war and also because so much of the humour of the 1950s and 1960s was coming out from Jewish New York. I was always terribly proud to be the person who was seen as different. It was a great thing. Unfortunately, they’ve managed to turn the State of Israel into a divisive issue and there is a new way to get back at us again. So times are hard.”

She recently started the debate on ‘Jewface’, saying that a Jewish actress should have been offered the role of Golda Meir in the film Golda that went to Helen Mirren, who has been criticised for wearing too much latex to look like the former Israeli prime minister.

“I haven’t seen the film, but I presume it is fairly pro-Israel so it hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance to begin with, has it?” she laughs. She maintains that while acting is acting, if Judaism – culturally, nationally or religiously – is at the centre of a role she believes should be played by a Jew – even if she is a Jew playing a non-Jewish woman in Coronation Street. And she’s unhappy that Jewish directors and producers aren’t leading from the front on this issue.

“I’m thinking about when Alec Guinness played Fagin and how his nose was almost bigger than the screen,” she says. “I’ve played a lot of non-Jewish people in my life and I don’t think every Jewish role needs to be filled by a Jew – that would be stupid. But if it’s integral to the part, why wouldn’t you cast a Jew?”

She ponders this thought momentarily.

“But if Steven Spielberg can cast a non-Jewish actress to play his own mother, there’s no hope. I haven’t seen The Fabelmans and I know Michelle Williams is wonderful as an actress, but Steven Spielberg is someone who can make things happen in the world of Jewface.”

The Lehman Trilogy is also problematic for her.

“The show obviously has fabulous actors, but I would say to Mr Sam Mendes [the Jewish producer and director of the show] fight for your own a bit more. I know most people won’t notice if there is a shrug in the wrong place or simcha is pronounced incorrectly but we notice, we Jews will notice and we count too.”

The ‘Rose’ among our thorny detractors has spoken. Here’s hoping she keeps on talking.

Rose is at the Ambassadors Theatre, London from 23 May. For tickets visit roseonstage.co.uk

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