A golden year

Theatre - Maureen Lipman welcomes the triumph of age and experience on the stage

At the top of my list of the theatrical events of this year is a film. So, sorry purists, but nothing inside a proscenium arch has moved me or stayed with me as much as the Pedro Almodovar film Talk To Her. It is a comedy drama that encompasses many different forms of love, and makes a plea for tolerance for all of them. It has a sensational soundtrack and I don't mean the music, although the Alberto Iglesias score is playing in my head and my house for most hours of the day, but also the sounds of Spanish life -the timbre of voices, traffic, hospital corridors and the mysterious snap and prickle of the bullfighter's ritual robing.

It begins and ends with a theatre audience watching a Pina Bausch ballet. The dancers are considerably older than one would expect to see in dance. One of our two heroes is surreptitiously wiping away his tears. The other, a male nurse, is watching him from the seat behind. From this spreads the series of coincidences that make up this exquisite movie.

I've lauded this film to the point where my husband's eyes roll up into his brain at the mere mention of the words "Have you seen the Pedro Almo . . . ". Imagine my joy when I read of the arrival at the Barbican of Pina Bausch's new company to stage their dance drama Kontakthof.

The evening's thrill was being driven to the Barbican by my friend the actress Eve Pearce from north London in under 25 minutes. No, not thrill. Miracle. It's never taken less than an hour driving with my husband, and we've never been on speaking terms when we've finally emerged from some black tunnel or other.

The second thrill was the glittering nature of the audience. My dears, there was Rickman A, and Hytner N, Churchill C, and Hare/Fahri and Pryce /Fahy. In the words of Coward N: "I couldn't have liked it more!" The air was thespian - thick with excitement and everyone seemed to be a lifelong aficionado of Pina Bausch, as opposed to myself, who filtered by the shrine a mere fortnight ago.

"It's three hours long, you know," said my friend. I swallowed. I'd liked Caryl Churchill's play A Number at the Royal Court for the full hour of its duration, and Brian Friel's beautifully crafted and exquisitely acted Afterplay at the Gielgud for one hour ten, because I was eating my whitebait by 9.30 and in bed by 11 and, as the joke goes, home by one. Between you and me, I'm one of the people who thought Oklahoma! at the National was on the long side - and I was in it.

Well, the evening flew past: Bausch had hired 23 non-professionals from Wuppertal in Germany to recreate her 1978 ballet, all of them pensioners. If that doesn't grab you, then try this: the action takes place in a cheerless community hall where the loveless make and break contact in ways both seductive and sometimes demeaning. The dancers, all shapes, sizes and degrees of decay, make up in energy and character what they lack in craft. It's a triumph of age over experience and, although it may not sound it, it's often very, very funny.

As was Tony Benn, my other stage septuagenarian of the year, alone at the Old Vic, save a pipe and, conceivably, some slippers, he seduced his young audience with charm, wit and political passion. He wanted, he told us, to reintroduce good debate to this country because it was dead in parliament. He did. This was a triumph of experience over age.

Finally, back at the Old, well, by now Ancient Vic, a word about Elaine Stritch's show At Liberty. Never before, not even when Manchester United won the treble, have I seen my reserved old man on his feet, shouting the alien word "Bravo!", but that night he did.

With newly minted anecdotes, consummate phrasing and the devil's own timing, she put the "howl" back in showbusiness. She has a child's ability to play "let's pretend" and she does, seemingly for her own amusement. We're just allowed in to watch. The interval bar rustled like a snakepit, as everyone conjectured about her age. "She's 74." "She's 76." "She's 78, you know." Her ovation wasn't just standing, it was practically levitating. Her triumph was both experience and ageless.

An empty stage, a pipe and a schleppable stool were the only props in evidence for these shows. Age could not wither them and customers hailed their infinite variety.

Sheridan Morley is unwell

This article first appeared in the 16 December 2002 issue of the New Statesman, How Blair put 30,000 more in jail