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Rose at the Park Theatre with Maureen Lipman – review

Martin Sherman's hit play is revived

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Maureen Lipman
© Mark Senior

Who could imagine that a woman alone on a bench talking solidly for more than two hours could be so utterly spellbinding? Well, when that woman is Dame Maureen Lipman delivering Martin Sherman's solo play that distils an entire generation of Jewish experience, from pogroms in a Ukrainian shtetl through the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto to the post-WW2 diaspora and a life of pragmatic plenty in America, down to the life of one indomitable individual, it's not just terrific theatre, it's essential viewing.

Originally written for the late Olympia Dukakis, who premiered it at the National in 1999 before taking it to Broadway, Sherman's extended monologue is a work of infinite riches, encompassing loss, hope, survival, the emotional and spiritual legacy handed down through generations, religion, sexuality, mortality, making do…. It's an epic journey but when the guide is as accomplished and seasoned a stage creature as Lipman, delivering career highlight work in rising star director Scott Le Crass's note-perfect production, it's a total pleasure, albeit sometimes a painful one, to sit through.

When Rose Rose (her name is explained in the course of the play) first shuffles on in her comfy but elegant shabby-chic clothing with her immaculately coiffed hair, she seems pretty ordinary, like many other Miami Beach retirees, garrulous, warm, funny, maybe a little cranky. But Sherman's script and Lipman's transfixing performance go on to demonstrate that for the generation of Jews who escaped the anti-Semitic atrocities in 20th century Europe, their lives were anything but "ordinary", that their latter day security and contentment was hard won, their stories etched in blood, guilt and tragedy, and their survival bathed in humour ranging from ironic to gallows.

Lipman is astounding: her command of an audience, her ability to make the text sound as though she's improvising on the spot, her lightning quick changes from cosy to cruel, chatty to profound, her timing, her authenticity, her technical precision… it all adds up to a performance of unassailable greatness. For the most part, this Rose is rooted to her bench as she talks to us, but there's a dancer-like grace to the way she moves her upper body, her restless, whirling hands expressive and compelling, her long, lovely face vividly registering everything from memories of erotic awakening to unspeakable horror at the news of a child's death, and blank shock at an unexpected reunion. Her accent fascinates too, starting as American but becoming increasingly Mittel European as she delves back into her memories, some comforting, some hilarious, some rueful, many of them traumatic. It happens seamlessly, just another piece of truth and detail in a bravura turn infused with them.

Le Crass wisely allows his star to take centre stage and do her marvellous thing, but matches her brilliance with a staging that is as stylish, complex and humane as it is unobtrusive. The pacing is exquisite and feels entirely organic, galvanising as Rose hits her stride in an especially impassioned flight of recall, sometimes slow and gentle as the text turns elegiac. Ultimately, everything Rose does, from mimicking Yiddish star Molly Picon in vintage movies to washing down her daily pill allocation with peanut butter vanilla ice cream ("I know, I know, I'm eating ice cream to take a pill for cholesterol. I'll tell you something - who cares?") to listening to her son berate her for sitting shiva for a child she never knew, becomes absolutely riveting.

Jane Lalljee's constantly changing lighting states, redolent of a giant mood lamp, complement the majesty of Sherman's writing and Lipman's acting without detracting from them. The same for Julian Starr's haunting sound score, although nothing is as powerful as the wrapt silence in the room as the audience hangs on Rose's every word, and David Shields provides a simple set of angular beauty.

Above all, this is Dame Maureen's night and she makes of it a masterclass: her Rose is funny, unflinching, deeply moving; she's benign, tricky, damaged, powerful, a mass of contradictions and a crucible of sheer humanity. It's wonderful that she's preserved forever on screen (this version was first presented online to great acclaim in 2020), but it's in the theatre, breathing the same air, palpably experiencing her unique, magnetic energy, that this Rose really blooms. Astonishing.