In early July, I’d like to imagine Eddie Izzard and Maureen Lipman meeting up for a glass or several of celebratory champagne. At this point, both performers will have finished their current extraordinary West End solo shows, which opened on the same night and are taking place in theatres just a few hundred metres apart. While Izzard is tackling Dickens’s Great Expectations, Lipman has an even more mighty project: the Jewish experience of the 20th century, as refracted through the eyes of one woman.

For almost two and a half hours, Lipman sits calmly upon a wooden bench on an otherwise bare stage. She is, we understand, sitting shiva, the formal Jewish ritual for mourning the dead. For whom exactly she is grieving we learn only at the end of Martin Sherman’s play, first seen at the National Theatre in 1999. Yet as her incredible narrative unfolds, we understand that Rose is also in mourning for numberless millions who died in the mad ferment of modern Jewish history.

Rose informs us that she was born in 1920, the time of the Russian Civil War, in a Jewish shtetl in what is now Ukraine, a name that is itself freighted with thoughts of history as it is happening this very day. “If you get your first period and first pogrom in the same month, you can safely assume that your childhood is over”, Rose says, in an early illustration of the perfect match-up of Lipman’s trademark dry sense of humour to the subtle inflections in Sherman’s script.

Rose moves from the shtetl to soon-to-be Nazi-occupied Warsaw; “How much worse could the Germans be than the Russians?” turns out to be a question with a grim answer. Rose’s young daughter is murdered in the Warsaw ghetto yet Rose, the survivor, struggles on, emotionally bleached by what she has endured. Lipman’s voice remains calm and steady as she recounts unthinkable horrors and loss. I must report that older audience members sitting near me struggled to hear everything sufficiently.

Scott Le Crass’s production is slow and stately, at times even seductively soporific, making us long for a sudden injection of pace and passion. This is a particular issue in the occasional drag of the second half, as Rose’s attentions turn to the turbulent times of modern Israel. Rose’s lingering dream of Palestine, as it formerly was, infuses the narrative and there are harsh words for the British government, which was markedly unkeen on allowing a large influx of Jewish refugees into what was then a British Mandate.

The whirl of years offers absurd, astonishing contrasts as Rose, ever in search of a sense of belonging, moves from the Warsaw ghetto to the nascent commercialism of late 1940s America. One woman’s lifetime can contain multitudes and Rose’s lifetime has many more multitudes than most. Together, Lipman and Sherman make us marvel – and tremble.

To 18 June (

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