Maureen Lipman heads a cast of just three in the sensational Daytona which comes to Watford Palace Theatre on Sep 9.
It’s a bit of a homecoming for her because it’s the theatre where she started her stage career back in 1967.
Daytona is arguably her most demanding stage role yet, in a career that spans some five decades.
“I’m possessed,” says the 67-year-old, her brown eyes flashing. “It just takes me over. I wake up every two hours thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s good’ or ‘I should practice that’. But you can’t. Because then you get really overtired. And then you get ...” – the Lipman eyebrows raise – “symptoms. From the first read through I’ve been emotional to say the least.”
Daytona, a new play by Lipman’s friend and fellow actor Oliver Cotton, starts its national tour at WPC after a senssational opening at the new Park Theatre, Finsbury.
It is a dramatic and witty tango à trois, it’s the story of Ellie and Joe (Lipman and Harry Shearer), an elderly Jewish couple whose ballroom dance practice is disturbed one evening by the arrival of an unexpected but all-too-familiar face (John Bowe) at the door of their Brooklyn apartment.
Each corner of this troubled triangle hides a secret, making Cotton’s plot hard to write about without betraying his carefully drawn characters.
Lipman continues: “It’s love, sex, death – always. And when you’ve been in close proximity to death, as they have, then love and sex are very very attractive. You want to prove you’re alive.” It’s no plot spoiler to say that Lipman is talking about the Holocaust.
“All these survivors (and I’ve met many) are made of steel, because they’re the ones who survived. But along with the survival comes” – she pauses – “guilt. ‘Why me?’ Sometimes, if I’m at one of these Holocaust events, I look at these fantastic women and men, so cultured and beautiful, and they’ve got their gorgeous grandchildren around and I think, “F*** you, Hitler, you failed.
“They’re the proof that you can cull but you can’t destroy.”
As survivor Ellie, Lipman has received rave reviews. “Everyone who comes says: ‘God, but you’re so different. We didn’t know it was you.’ But I knew her. Even before we started rehearsals, I knew her. “She’s witty and dry and restrained, very restrained. There’s a lot going on inside but she doesn’t want to look at it. The status quo makes her happy. As Joe says, ‘Ellie and I have a made a life for ourselves. We don’t want to look at the past.’ I think a lot of people feel that way.”
Being a Jew in England has its pluses and minuses, says Lipman. “I once counted up the number of chicken soup bowls I’ve brought in on various sets – I got into double figures!”
But then there’s the anti-Semitism, the extremist websites, the Holocaust deniers. “You have to tell the story in every generation,” she urges. “They’ve just dug up Richard The Third. Did he have a humpback? No, he had scoliosis. Did he kill those people? History and Shakespeare said he did, so he did.”
The only thing to do, she says, is keep on talking. Just not on social media. “I don’t think so, love! I can get a bit obsessive, which is why my kids won’t let me go on Twitter. They said: ‘If you start with your opinions, you’re going to get killed.’
Lipsman has shared her life with Guido Castro, an Italian businessman, for the past five years, following the death of her husband, playwright Jack Rosenthal, from multiple myeloma cancer in 2004.
The couple share a roomy London basement flat where the actor and writer spends hours pottering about in her courtyard garden. “I’ve got the worst social life of anyone you’ve met,” she protests. “ I’m so boring, it’s not true!”
Daytona runs from Sep 9-14. For tickets/ info visit the box office www.watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk or call 01923 225671.