Proms at St Judes: Maureen Lipman talks Alice In Wonderland, dodgy singers and being ousted by Meryl Streep

Maureen Lipman

Maureen Lipman - Credit: Archant

Ahead of her appearance at an event marking 150 years of Lewis Carroll’s classic story, the actress tells Michael White why she’s ‘more caterpillar than white rabbit’

Scarred for life as I doubtless am by having played the Dormouse in a primary school staging and been stuffed into a teapot every night, I have mixed feelings about Alice in Wonderland. And so does the actress Maureen Lipman who stars in an evening of words and music to mark the 150th anniversary of the Alice stories.

As she told me last week, Lewis Carroll wasn’t her childhood reading of choice: “I liked books about girls who go to ballet school - Laura of the Wells or whatever – not girls who go down rabbit holes. And you do get rather annoyed by Alice don’t you? She’s such a very Victorian child it’s quite hard to identify with her.

“But lots of things in life remind me of Alice: when you come across reversals of justice where black becomes white, you can’t help thinking That’s very Alice in Wonderland. And I can certainly identify with some of the other characters.

“You’d probably put me down as the White Rabbit sort, but I’m actually too lazy. I see myself more as the Caterpillar, endlessly contrarian, a bit bolshy. And finding the voices for these creatures is maybe the main reason I agreed to do this show – apart from the fact that it means working with musicians, which is something I love. I like to be in the presence of experts who can do things I can’t”.

The experts at St Jude’s will be the violinist Matthew Trusler and pianist Ashley Wass performing specially written pieces by a dozen prominent composers - including Roxana Panufnik and Stephen Hough, who may be better known for playing the piano but has a growing catalogue of works from his own pen.

When we talked, Ms Lipman hadn’t seen or heard the music; and it’s anybody’s guess if it turns out to be her sort of thing. She tells me she’s a Radio 3/Classic FM listener, but it’s jazz and Broadway that she leans toward. And her career has had a fair go at the latter, with leading roles in Oklahoma, Wonderful Town, and A Little Night Music.

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Though the roles she tends to get are ones where character is more important than the singing, she does have a voice. As I can testify from the impromptu performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Losing my Mind that she gave me in the privacy of her Paddington flat.

The only problem is that some of her music-related roles have asked her NOT to sing so well. She made a big hit several years ago with a one-woman show about Joyce Grenfell that called for songs in Grenfell’s instantly recognisable 1950s warble. And then came a play-with-music (of sorts) about Florence Foster Jenkins: the deluded American heiress who acquired lasting fame for singing in public when she couldn’t.

Silenced only by death, which intervened barely a month after selling out Carnegie Hall, Florence passed into legend as a joyous paradigm for dreadful singers everywhere, thanks to performances of Mozart, Strauss and others that were, as one commentator put it, “undaunted by the composer’s intent”.

They survive to this day on YouTube, where you can thrill to the supreme feebleness of her Queen of the Night and the magnificent inadequacy of her Schubert Lieder.

But as Lipman recalls, a problem with impersonating her was to get the right sort of wrongness: something she achieved by having serious singing lessons with the voice-teacher Mary King at English National Opera, “where, on a hot summer’s night, you wouldn’t have wanted to hear the noise coming out of the open windows as we rehearsed”.

Florence’s fame is due to get another lease of life, because Stephen Frears is making a movie about her with Meryl Streep in the lead role. “And of course I’m furious about that”, says Lipman, “But at least Stephen did come round here to talk about what makes Florence a hard character to portray – the chief thing being that she wasn’t self-aware. I am, and so is Meryl. So the requirement is to fool yourself into exceptional obtuseness”.

Nothing of the kind is likely to be needed for the programme about Lewis Carroll’s Alice – who although a child, Victorian and irritating, knows what she’s about. And with a script by novelist Louis de Berniers, Lipman is glad that she said yes to it.

“The truth is, I very rarely say no to anything because even if a job looks as though it’s going to get me into deep water, I usually end up enjoying the challenge. I like working with different people. I’m really looking forward to these musicians. And if you want to come and be the Dormouse…”

Sadly, it’s a role that’s been retired.

Maureen Lipman, Ashley Wass and Matthew Trusler perform Wonderland, St Jude’s NW11, Sun 21st, 7pm.