Courtesan, abseiling gran. It’s all in a day’s work

By Maureen Lipman, February 5, 2009

It’s a grand life in the British theatre if your knees don’t weaken and your brain cells don’t reduce. I have the good fortune, in these days of disproportionate response  and crunchy credit, to be in A HIT MUSICAL at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark Street. It’s not quite, Broadway, let alone the West End — I share my dressing room with seven pert-breasted 27-year olds and a mouse with attitude. But the show sizzles with success and, right now, you’d have to hold one of my children to ransom to get a ticket.

The audience and the actors are very close to each other, to the extent that they — occasionally — mingle and swap small talk.

This proximity can be quite magical when a gorgeous blonde is singing Send in the Clowns but it can be disturbing when members of the audience think they are at home.

A friend who came asked me what glue they used on my face to make me look so  old and “puckered”. I had to tell her that I was using a Shu Emera powder base and the “puckering” she’d observed was merely my own puckers, in close up.

In my role as the elderly courtesan Madame Arfeld, I was sitting in my wheelchair in the wings, waiting for my entrance. I say wings advisedly, meaning the two feet of curtained-off space between the stage and the rucksacks and discarded Ugg boots in front of the front row. One night, for reasons later revealed to be not unconnected with alcohol, a white-haired member of the audience staggered to his feet, crossed the stage to the strains of Sondheim’s dark and  edgy lyric, Every Day a Little Death, parted the velvet curtains and, with a hint of bravado, pee’d slowly into the wings.

It was bad enough for the audience but picture it from my point of view. For a minute I wondered if, unbeknown to me, some sort of puppetry had been inserted into the show… with sound effects.

At the interval, the stage management, having cleaned and disinfected the area, politely asked him to leave as he stood at the bar attempting to order a beer. He was affronted at their audacity and made a noisy fuss all the way out of the building.

If you’re thinking it couldn’t get worse, you should have been in the house on Tuesday, when the disco across the alleyway held a private party. They do try to keep the noise down generally when we are performing , aware of the fact that killer Rap and 19th-century Swedish comedy of manners go together like marzipan and anchovies, but on this occasion the tiny theatre was vibrating with heavy bass and the merrymakers were whooping it up outside the venue, turning our delicate Mozartian operetta into A Little Non-White Music.

At the interval, I stormed out of the building , in full black crinoline and white pompadour wig, into their open doors.

“What in hell’s name is going on here?” I shrieked imperiously, oblivious to the effect my white face and ghostly apparel might have on the strapping stroppy teenagers before me.

“We’re trying to do a period piece in that theatre and we can’t hear ourselves think!”

They stared at me indifferently as the music ground on relentlessly.

“Whose party is it?” I demanded.

Through pitying looks they informed me that this was the launch party for the new series of Skins, the  explicit, cult TV show for teenagers. The sound of wind dropping out of sails was suddenly louder than the throb of guitars.

“Oh, my God,” I breathed, “I’m in that.”

(I’d accepted the part without reading the script on the strength of the stage directions on the first page: “Auntie enters, abseiling down a 20-foot tree, carrying a massive chain saw.”)

However, whatever “street-cred” I might have earned through my appearance in the episode vanished, in the very street I was, incredibly, standing on, dressed as a dying courtesan.

The realisation came that an invitation to this party was one I’d refused, on the grounds that I would be playing in a musical that night.

I walked the 10 metres back to Sondheim’s Sweden, firmly accompanied by a giant security guard in luminous day-glo,  wondering whether the fun would be over by the time Little Night Music finished so that I could pop in for a stately bop.

How lucky am I? An abseiling grandma, a Lady of Letters, a 19th-century martinet and a coffee morning chat at Nightingale House, all in one week.

And it might have stopped my mother (God rest her soul) uttering her perennial “Anything in the pipeline, luv?”.

Last updated: 2:32pm, February 5 2009