Review by Daz Gale
Every so often, a show makes waves before it has even hit the West End, showing the power of regional theatre (and, in this case, digital) in a journey that gets bigger and bigger. That is exactly what has happened with one-woman show Rose whose journey to the West End stage has been as eventful as the characters story herself. Perhaps later than might have been hoped, she has finally made it, taking up residency at the Ambassadors Theatre for a limited run in a testament to the power of perseverance.
Originally performed at National Theatre and on Broadway in 1999, this latest production of Rose was first seen as a digital revival which streamed several times during 2020, getting us through those dark months when all theatres remained closed. Generating a huge buzz, it was aired on TV and finally hit the stage last year with sell-out runs at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester and Park Theatre in London. Now in the West End for just 28 performances, it already comes with a wealth of five star rave reviews so what else is there for me to say that hasn’t already been said by countless others? That’s never stopped me before so here I go…
Rose is centred around 80 year old Rose as she sits shiva for the loss of a 9 year old girl. In this solo show, she recounts the events of her life – all its highs, lows, twists and turns which frequently comes back to her sitting shiva for somebody else she has lost. It charts a tumultuous century for Jews as she navigates the devastation caused by the Nazis and her multiple attempts to get to the homeland she cherishes all the while dealing with immense change and uncertainty in her own personal circumstances and the ever-evolving world.
Rose is portrayed by Maureen Lipman in a truly impressive performance which sees her remain on the stage from the start to finish of each act, never even getting up from the uncomfortable bench she sits on throughout. While solo shows are always impressive in their own right (I will forever be in awe of anyone who can memorise so much dialogue without a break), this one is even more so due to the length of it. Clocking in at 2 hours 40 minutes (including the interval) that is a huge ask for one performer to manage on their own let alone to do it with such ease and class as Lipman effortlessly manages.
Lipman brings her own inimitable charm to the story and its text in a real masterclass performance which feels completely natural and authentic. Such is the quality of LIpmans performance, it is easy to forget you are watching an actor on the stage – often feeling like the actual person is telling the story to you personally, remarkably managing to feel completely intimate despite being in a West End theatre with hundreds of people surrounding you. There may have been some moments where Lipman stumbled over words, mixing up names or perhaps even forgetting a line but you would never know thanks to her quick-thinking and naturalistic approach to the storytelling method, even throwing in a quick ad-lib which you would only pick up on if you had seen the show more than once.
Martin Shermans writing in Rose is always exceptional, beautiful telling not just Rose’s story but that of so many others who lived through these uncertain times in a story that many will be able to relate to either through their own lived lives or that of their ancestors. Being of Jewish heritage myself, the whole thing felt very moving and poignant in times but also would be fully accessible to all.
The multi-layered nature of Shermans writing adds to the success of Rose with a lot of humour sprinkled throughout – be it one of her throwaway lines, the way she recounts a story, pokes fun at herself or speaks of the absurdity of a situation. Paired with Lipmans flawless delivery, this creates many moments to make you smile or laugh though these can very quickly be replaced by more sombre moments. The way Rose can perfectly control your emotions shows a deep understanding to connecting with the audience and allows us to empathise with her story, no matter what our own similarities or differences might be. The fact it is still relatable, perhaps even more than it was in 1999 speaks volumes for the writings ability to transcend the decaes.
The direction from Scott Le Crass beautifully brings Shermans text to life and gives Maureen Lipman plenty to play with in a nuanced performance. Directing a show where the only character remains seated the entire time could come across unstimulating and even dull in the hands of another but this isn’t an issue here at all with the direction perfectly complementing both the acting and the writing.
David Shields’ set design sees a predominantly sparse stage filled only with Rose’s bench and a backdrop with changing lighting, designed by Jane Lalljee and used to brilliant effect leading to atmospheric moments. Another highlight is the subtle use of sound design by Julian Starr. In a show that is mostly silent aside from Rose’s monologue, sound effects very quietly play out in the background, never threatening to overshadow Lipmans performance but adding to it with a quiet dignity.
There is a reason many have been wowed by Rose over the past few years, Having caught the streamed production myself in 2020, I knew there was something special about this show – however, I wasn’t prepared for how much more impactful it would be in person. The ability to connect with the writing and truly feel allowed for a far better and more emotional experience. While the writing is incredible in itself, it can’t be understated how magnificent Maureen Lipman is in the role in what must be one of the greatest solo performances I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. In a stunningly sensitive and sentimental approach, Lipman delivers one of the all time great performances and should definitely be given her flowers for a triumph such as this.
Rose plays at The Ambassadors Theatre until 18th June. Click here for tickets.