MAUREEN LIPMAN is probably best known for two things: as the impersonator of Joyce Grenfell in Re: Joyce! and as the over-fussy but kindly Jewish grandmother Beatrice Bellman in a series of TV adverts for British Telecom.
She has the endearing persona — both on and off screen — of a slightly neurotic but family-oriented older lady with a wicked sense of humour, and while chatting to her on the phone about her latest play, which comes to the Oxford Playhouse at the end of this month, you can hear a scenario in the background that is straight out of one of those TV ads.
Suddenly, everything happens at once. There’s a knock at the door, the other phone starts to ring, and then comes the sound of an animal wincing in pain.
“Oh dear, my dog is trapped between the... oh and the phone is ringing. And there’s someone at the door,” she says, all in one breath.
Then her voice adopts a certain tenderness as she adds: “And here comes my granddaughter — and that’s possibly the best sentence I’ve ever uttered in my life.”
Apart from the joy of welcoming her 16-month-old granddaughter Ava to her London home, Lipman is feeling very pleased with herself on another front at the moment.
Her leading role in a new play, Daytona, has already attracted rave reviews from its opening in London, with one critic describing her performance as “utterly mesmerising”.
And she revealed that it was while in Oxford last April, directing and playing in Barefoot In The Park, that she “discovered” the play, written by co-star Oliver Cotton. She said: “Oliver played my lover, the guy upstairs who I end up with. (I should be so lucky.)
“He showed me this play he had written and I said, ‘It’s bloody marvellous’.
“I persuaded him to go back to it and made a few suggestions. He had written another which was terribly funny, but this is much more serious, a black comedy.”
Not only did she encourage Cotton to finish writing the play, she also helped organise its debut while making a programme for BBC1 about memory, If Memory Serves Me Right, earlier this year.
She said: “One of the things they set up was for me to attend a fund-raiser for a new theatre, the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, which is like a brand spanking new version of the Donmar Warehouse.
“I went along and interviewed various people, including Tom Stoppard, about whether they could remember anything before they were three. Anyway, while I was there I met the young chap who was the running the place and said, ‘I’ve got this wonderful new play’ and he read it and agreed with me.
“He wanted me to play the lead role and I said I didn’t think I was right for it.
“I don’t think of myself as the woman who’s caught between two men, I think of myself as the woman who’s watching from the sidelines and making jokes about it. But he insisted and here we are. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Set in 1986, the play is a three-hander about an elderly married couple from New York, Elli (Lipman) and Joe Zimmerman, played by Harry Shearer, who are preparing for a ballroom dancing competition.
While Elli is out collecting her costume from her sister’s house Joe’s long-lost brother Billy (John Bowe) arrives on the scene. He had been missing for 30 years, and was presumed dead. He’s now on the run.
As the three characters are Jewish it is almost inevitable, I suggest, that the secret in the play is something to do with the war and the Holocaust, and she agrees, saying that the themes are very contemporary — not only as the German courts are currently make a last-ditch attempt to bring Nazi suspects to justice before they die, but there are also echoes, she says, of the Jimmy Savile affair.
Lipman explained: “This play is a very hard one to talk about without giving it all away, but it’s a bit of a film noir and it slowly unravels. You find out what they have escaped from, and what he has come back to do.
“It involves survival from the war, and it’s really about love and revenge. It’s funny, and emotional.”
Lipman, 67, has had a long and varied career and has shown herself to be versatile, winning acclaim for her work in both comedy and tragedy.
Appointed a CBE for her contribution to showbusiness in 1999, she has received a Laurence Olivier Theatre award for best comedy in See How They Run as well as being nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the haunting Holocaust film The Pianist, in which she played the protagonist’s mother.
However she says her most fun and exciting role was as Aunt Ella in Oklahoma! with Hugh Jackman back in 1999.
She said: “There’s nothing like a musical, especially the adrenaline of doing a musical on stage at the National. The first time you come out of the rehearsal room and the orchestra come on it’s like... it’s like a birth.”
And despite being a grandmother, she hasn’t hung up her dancing shoes yet.
“We do some ballroom dancing in Daytona — a quick step. And while I’m the one who says ballroom dancing will be fun, well I have done musicals but when it comes to it I haven’t done a musical before at the age of 67. And as for ballroom dancing, I learnt it in Hull as a teenager when I was the boy because I was so tall. It’s a different story when you are trying not to lead.”
Nonetheless she is looking forward to her twirl on the stage at the Playhouse, adding: “It’s very Strictly.”
lDaytona is at the Oxford Playhouse from Monday to Saturday, September 23 to 28. Box office 01865 305305 or visit www.oxfordplayhouse.com