As Amy Rosenthal’s critically-acclaimed play Henna Night is performed again, the playwright tells Francine Wolfisz about the role of comedy in her life, her earlier ambitions and working with her famous mother
A woman wanting to end her life doesn’t immediately make you think of good Jewish humour – but putting tragedy and comedy side by side “is very much in our DNA”, argues playwright Amy Rosenthal.
We’re speaking ahead of the opening of her black comedy, Henna Night, which is directed by Peter James and runs at New Diorama Theatre from next week.
Rosenthal, who is the daughter of acclaimed playwright Jack Rosenthal and actress Maureen Lipman, first penned the powerful two-hander 15 years ago, while finishing a masters in playwriting at Birmingham University.
Spurned by her former lover, Judith (Hatty Preston) leaves a desperate message on her ex-boyfriend Jack’s answerphone telling him she has bought a packet of henna and some razorblades – but hasn’t yet decided whether she will dye her hair or cut her wrists. Judith adds that she might be pregnant before hanging up and waiting for a knock at the door. But instead of Jack, her late-night visitor turns out to be Ros (Nicola Daley), the very woman he has left her for.
The 39-year-old playwright explains: “I wanted to show these two women working through the stages of absolutely loathing each other to reaching an understanding where, perhaps in a different context, they might actually have liked each other. In another time and place, they might even have been in each other’s positions.”
At the time of writing Henna Night, which picked up the Sunday Times Drama Award after its debut in 1999, Rosenthal admits the material came from “real feelings, real heartbreak.”
She adds: “Because this theme was so prominent in my life and so raw, it seemed the natural thing to write. I always try to write from the heart, but I would never want my audience to leave without having laughed. Comedy is really important to me.”
That sense of humour – and particularly Jewish sense of humour – comes in part from both her father Jack Rosenthal, who penned a string of critically-acclaimed comedies, including Bar Mitzvah Boy, and her mother, Maureen Lipman, famed for numerous light-hearted roles on stage and screen.
“Comedy often gets treated as tragedy’s poor relation, but my upbringing taught me they are absolutely two sides of the same coin.”
I ask Rosenthal if she has amended Henna Night since it was first performed in 1999 for this revival 15 years on – but she has not, and for good reason.
“The fact is when I first wrote the script, although we all had mobile phones, we didn’t use them in the same way that we do now. It was still more likely that you would leave them a message on somebody’s landline.
“So you can either change all those references or leave it as it is. But it really feels too long ago for me to start unpicking the script without the play falling apart.”
Since writing Henna Night, which was Rosenthal’s second play, she has written several more for stage and radio to critical acclaim. I ask if she always knew she would follow in her late father’s footsteps.
“Actually, I wanted to be an actress” muses Rosenthal. “I always liked writing, but it wasn’t a driving ambition like it is now. It took a while to realise I was just not cut out to be an actress emotionally – and I was also terrible at acting. My talents were clearly in another direction.”
What of her mother – was she encouraging of her daughter to join her on stage?
“She was encouraging of me to become a writer!” she quips, before adding that her upbringing encouraged her to view acting and playwriting as “wonderful and feasible”.
While Rosenthal finally leaned towards writing, there have of course been “little moments of working together” with her talented mum, including a short film, That Woman, which premiered at the UK Jewish Film Festival in 2012.
As for current projects, Rosenthal tells me there is more than one in the pipeline – making full use of her signature black humour, of course.
One is The Ballad of Martha Brown, currently touring with Angel Exit Theatre, which tells the real-life story of the last woman hanged in Dorset (and apparently inspired Thomas Hardy to write Tess of the d’Urbervilles). The other Rosenthal describes as an opera libretto about Ruth Ellis, the last woman executed in Britain.
“You could say I’m cornering the market in hanging women at the moment,” she observes wryly.
Henna Night runs from 10 June to 28 June, 7.30pm, at New Diorama Theatre, Regents Place, London. No performances Sundays or Mondays. Details: 020 7383 9034 or http://newdiorama.com/whats-on/henna-night