When heading to the theatre for a monologue, there’s often a slight sense of trepidation. It’s a masterful skill to be able to hold the attention of an audience with one voice: the story needs to be utterly engaging and the actor must be exceptional. Heading to see the West End transfer of Rose, however, little doubt crossed my mind. Not only is the play in the safe hands of Maureen Lipman, but it has already received rave reviews. However, I wanted to take my seat with as little expectation for greatness as possible, and to make my own mind up.
Rose is a fictional tale of a Jewish woman, who we meet as she is sitting shiva, a week-long period of mourning in Judaism. We find out within minutes that she is sitting shiva for a nine-year-old child who has been shot in the forehead. Rose is in her eighties and is reflecting on her own life, sharing the horror of the Warsaw ghetto, and the escape to the “American Dream”. In just over two hours, the play covers Rose’s entire lifetime – the three husbands, the children, and grandchildren. The shivas. It’s an intensely overwhelming experience.
Often when reviewing, the focus is on the cast, the set, the music, the tangible entities in front of us. But with Rose, the language takes centre stage. Rose’s story is told with a delicious mix of imagery and symbolism. A reference to tumbleweed towards the start of the play is picked up towards the end, and the poignancy is like a punch to the stomach. Martin Sherman’swriting is truly miraculous, and it’s the kind of play that makes you want to pore over the text with a pencil and highlighter.
Lipman is, of course, an utter wonder to watch. The stamina and memory required to perform such a work must be immense, but she performs with such ease it feels like listening to a relative talk about their life. There are moments when names are confused, or there are stumbles, but in Lipman’s depiction of Rose it’s not easy to decipher if the errors are that of Rose or Lipman. You quickly forget you’re at the theatre, not on the sofa opposite her. In fact, this is perhaps where a West End stage finds its faults. It would have been so much better to be in an intimate setting, to feel the reactions of a small room, as we gasp, weep, and laugh together.
The staging is simple. Rose sits shiva on a wooden bench, surrounded by just some water and pills. But the subtle changes of lighting behind her are wonderfully considered. You don’t notice the changes at first, until you suddenly realise something is happening, and the hues are seen to be reflecting the words. Scott Le Crass’s direction also appears subtle, but in fact this nuanced approach is ingenious and impactful. When Rose is on a train, her movements shift, the lighting changings, and we’re transformed. When Rose is remembering a horror from the past, the stage becomes red, and motions become still. Slight hand movements punctuate as subtle soundtracks to her life come and go. It truly is a masterclass in letting the text shine and Lipman enchants us.
There’s real magic to this play, and it’s no surprise it has seen such success. It’s a true artform to blend absolute horror with roars of laughter, sometimes within minutes. The play is a beautiful exploration of identity, belonging and, ultimately, the depressing reality of how little has changed. The moment of realising who she is sitting shiva for brings tears to my eyes even as I write this over my cup of tea the next morning.
Written by Martin Sherman
Directed by Scott Le Crass
Designed by David Shields
Musical composition & sound design by Julian Star
Lighting design by Jane Lalljee
Produced by Thomas Hopkins, Guy Chapman, Michael Quinn, Sarig Peker, Keren Misgav Ristvedt, Pinnacle Partners, Julian Stoneman, Creative House, John Rogerson, Sisco Entertainment
Rose plays at Ambassadors Theatre until 18 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.