Maureen Lipman won’t spill the beans on the big secret behind latest show
- Credit: Johan Persson
At least according to newspaper folklore, the trouble with even the most wonderful actors is that they are typically the trickiest people to interview.
It seems alright enough for TV presenters, whose stage and screen guests dazzle viewers with their overwhelming charisma and well-rehearsed anecdotes. As legendary interviewer Lynn Barber laments, “They’re so fluent”.
But on the phone they’re like onions: try peeling back the layers and it can end in tears.
Maureen Lipman is indeed a most wonderful actress. Those who didn’t get the chance to see her co-star in romantic thriller Daytona at Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre last summer should certainly pay a visit to the current West End transfer – and, what’s more, she would undoubtedly make great company in the bar afterwards.
Happily, the difference with Lipman – who rose to national treasure status for her portrayals of Aunt Eller in the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! and fellow actress Joyce Grenfell in the biographical TV show Re: Joyce – is that you usually know exactly where she stands.
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There are some notable exceptions, like her explanation of why she is reprising her role in Daytona: “There was no other work around. No, no. Well it’s true actually – no – I love this play and I love playing this part more than anything I’ve ever done. I don’t know why, to be honest, but I think it is a good piece.”
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Yet Lipman speaks with a disarming honesty about what she describes as a limited range of roles available to her. “There probably is a reason why I have never done a drama series or a classic, and it can’t be because I’m a crap actress,” she asserts.
Although she is a staunch feminist, she believes that the problem no longer lies with a lack of acting opportunities for women and instead blames her supposed “funny” appearance: “It’s always the kid with the buck teeth who learns to be funny.”
Another brief mix-up unfolds after she abruptly hollers, “There’s a good boy!” in response to a rather routine question down the phone. I’m profoundly lost for words – until I realise that the renowned dog-lover probably isn’t talking to me.
I proceed to ask about the background of her latest project, which revolves around a love triangle with a twist. It involves Elli – a Jewish immigrant living in 1980s New York, played by Lipman – her husband Joe (Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap and Simpsons fame) and his brother Billy (Oliver Cotton), who returns after 30 years.
The mysterious nature of the show means it’s dangerous to reveal much about Lipman’s participation, though perhaps it suffices to say that critics have described her performance as “first-rate” and “utterly mesmerising”.
“If I could reveal the whole plot, the box office would be bursting,” the 68-year-old says. “I think the audience likes to be surprised.”
She mentions that the question of personal and cultural identity is central to the piece but was surprisingly vague about how she defines her own Jewish identity: “Would you ask Judi Dench what Quakerism meant to her?”
Foolishly maybe, I try love – another of Daytona’s main moot points – as an alternative. “Everyone wants to know what I think about love all of a sudden. What do you think I think? It’s as good as ever,” she replies sunnily.
But Lipman speaks movingly about her feelings towards her late husband, the playwright Jack Rosenthal, who died in 2004: “A huge part of me still doesn’t quite believe he’s dead. When I go on stage I still think, ‘Oh god, Jack, help me through this.’”
She is equally willing to share details about her acting style “I am not a method actress. I just try to find out what’s under the words – people never mean what they say or say what they mean,” she says.
A method actress she isn’t, but Lipman has a remarkable method of dealing with life’s questions.
Daytona is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until August 23. Box office on 020 7930 8800. For further information, visit trh.co.uk.