Amy Rosenthal: My daughter, the playwright

When your parents are Jack Rosenthal and Maureen Lipman, your career path is obvious. Nick Ahad meets playwright Amy Rosenthal.

Amy Rosenthal
Amy Rosenthal

Growing up in the shadow of famous parents is something, one assumes, you choose to embrace or deny. Unless you’re Amy Rosenthal.

“When I was at university in Manchester a lecturer said to me ‘if you’re going to walk around with your father’s name and your mother’s face then people are going to know who you are’,” says the playwright and scriptwriter.

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The name belonged to her famous scriptwriter father Jack and the face she inherited was that of Maureen Lipman.

Rosenthal has strong memories of being around showbusiness all her life and it was something of a given, she says, that she would follow her parents into the industry.

“That’s just where my natural abilities are – I was never going to be a scientist,” she says. “I always loved what my parents did for a living. It never occurred to me to rebel against that, I just assumed that’s what you did.” Rosenthal did what was expected and entered the theatrical world via the door marked playwright: “I was a terrible actor,” she says.

At the age of 24, she became writer in residence at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. It really did seem like fate.

“I think I was about two years old the first time I saw my mum perform and when I was about four or five she was in a musical called Wonderful Town which I think I saw every Saturday night for months,” she says.

“In the early 80s or late 70s my mum was in a television play written by Alan Ayckbourn. I was very young and my mum took me on set. I remember the director would give notes and then ask me if I had any notes for the actors. They would all stand around listening to this very serious little girl giving them all notes on their performance.”

Precocious, then.

After the writer’s residence, Rosenthal went from strength to strength and now sits on an oeuvre of well-received plays and a number of radio plays. Her latest piece is part of the new season of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s A Play, A Pie and a Pint season.

A borrowed format from a Scottish theatre, A Play, A Pie and a Pint does what it says in the title – it’s a rough and ready, unpolished, unpretentious way of showing theatre. Ticket buyers get the eponymous drink and pie and get to see a show in a temporarily created theatre space in the Playhouse’s bar area. “It was one of those things that just happen when your agent calls you and if you can fit it in, you say yes,” says Rosenthal.

“I’d never actually been to the West Yorkshire Playhouse – even though I spent a fair bit of my childhood up there, so it’s been nice to come up and see the theatre.”

Rosenthal’s famous mother grew up in Hull and her parents, Rosenthal’s grandparents, remained in the area. She remembers visiting Hull, although trips to Hull Truck or the region’s other theatres do not stick in the memory – visiting her grandparents was an opportunity to escape the showbiz world that was around her all the time at home.

“I have thought about writing something set in the North,” says Rosenthal, who might have grown up and lived in London, but recognises the cadences of our speech thanks to her East Riding-born mother.

Indeed, as well as being a vehicle for the young actors on the Playhouse’s graduate scheme, Verity Kirk and David Leopold, her contribution to Play, Pie Pint, is set in Leeds.

Polar Bears explores young love and the challenges faced by young people taking their early steps into the real world. Set in a frosty woodland clearing on the outskirts of Leeds, a games enthusiast and his girlfriend cling fast to the rules of their fantasy world, as their real one slowly unravels around them.

“I was told it needed to be a piece for two young actors,” says Rosenthal. “I had a vague idea and then met the actors and director and realised that the story was about these young people in this moment in their lives where they have just graduated and are coming into the world.

“Needing to get a first draft in before Christmas was actually really helpful. Writing can be a very isolating business and usually I would come up with an idea and then approach a theatre to see if there’s any interest, this happened in a backwards way, where the theatre approached my agent and then I came up with an idea.”

The stringent timetable also forced Rosenthal to simply get on with the writing.

“It also meant I had to say yes to myself. Often, because of the soullessness of technology, you can write something and then very easily go back to it and change it, delete it, move it around – by the end of a day you can find yourself in a position where you have undone all your work. With this, I just had to get on with it.”

• Polar Bears, January 27-31, West Yorkshire Playhouse. Tickets 0113 2137700.