When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
More than Lip service
The usually unflappable Maureen Lipman is in a bit of a tizzy when we speak. But as Barefoot In The Park, which she’s directing and starring in, is days from opening, it’s entirely understandable.
“I’m doing this as a pure exercise in masochism. I’m an actress for goodness sake and I think I know how to direct, but doing both at once is nothing short of megalomania,” she says throwing her hands up in alarm.
That such a grande dame of British theatre still gets stage fright is another reassuring sign, but then Maureen has always been notoriously down to earth. But the question keeping her awake at night is whether she’s bitten off more than she can chew. “I keep thinking of Barbara Streisand in Yentl going from a girl dressed as a girl, dressed as a boy, and then back behind the camera again and wondering how she did that. How did she manage it?” she asks me vehemently.
The proof will be in the pudding of course, although no one has any doubts that Maureen will pull it off, nor that it will be a resounding success — except her of course.
“The thing about our generation is we are all insecure and while we try to be very encouraging we secretly believe we are rubbish. But I keep telling myself it’s a great classic play and I just have to do the best I can do.
“But when it gets to the bit where I have to come out from behind my directing desk and get up on stage and act, well, I just don’t want to. I have to force myself to get up there,” she sighs.
And now that she’s on a roll, there’s no stopping her: “I was so keen to have an egalitarian production, so that no one could be huffy and puffy, and the cast could say ‘I want to stand here not there’. But I’ve learnt that there is a gang mentality and that someone has to take charge, because people want someone to. So no more lunching with the actors for me, which was the best part of my working day. So yes, I’m finding it exhausting!” she says ruefully.
And then she adds with that famous twinkle in her eye: “I mean, it’s ridiculous — I’m in bed at 9pm every night for the first time since I was 12 years old.”
But then Maureen Lipman loves a bit of drama, as we all know from her 35-year illustrious career. And besides, Barefoot In The Park is her dream project is it not? “No, it was a play that Jack (Rosenthal, the TV writer and her late husband) always said had perfect construction,” she says correcting me. “But I’ve never been so in rhyme with another person’s sense of humour as I am with Neil Simon the playwright.
“Because he also did tragicomic brilliantly at the same time. He is a master and that’s why I wanted to do this play. Plus, it had a part for me and I wanted to work so knew I’d have to do it myself,” she adds, almost as a second thought, before reverting back to her husband.
“Jack always encouraged people to go under the script and digest it, and he encouraged people to play to the text. So he gave me the courage to believe I could do this. And while sometimes that’s quite irritating,” she laughs at the irony, “I love to be given suggestions and remain constantly challenged and to be inventive. It’s just what I like to do.”
So has the whole experience made her appreciate directors more? “Well as an actor we are always grumbling that we do it ourselves. But now I’m not sure how much of that is true. Because directing is like sculpture, you take something away from one bit, something very simple, and the whole thing then works in a completely different way. But it is fascinating,” she concedes.
“Fascinating and challenging, interesting, all enveloping and exhausting,” she adds for a second time. “And I’ve never been so far from certain of my own worth. So we really need an audience now. I can’t sit in that room anymore. Because it’s the audience who decides. And it’s not going to change my life. No one’s going to say ‘come and do it on Broadway’. But we have got some great, great actors and it stands and falls with them in the end.”
And if this brief glimpse of Maureen isn’t enough, her avid fans will also be clamouring to buy tickets for Maureen’s Friday at 5 talk about her extensive career on stage and screen, also at The Playhouse, which curiously she’s not batting an eyelid about.
“I think it will be a nice little hour, because I have an ability to stand up and talk to people and it works, so when I get up on stage I just think I’m at a party or in a hospital and I don’t care how many people are there. I seem to be able to pretend to be myself rather successfully,” she concludes.
We hadn’t noticed Maureen, but as a performance it’s brilliant and the curtain hasn’t even gone up yet.
Barefoot In The Park runs at the Oxford Playhouse from Monday April 23 and Maureen Lipman’s Friday at 5pm talk is on Friday April 27. Box office on 01865 305305.