The Stage newspaper called Nichola McAuliffe’s Maurice’s Jubilee a must-see when it opened at Edinburgh last summer.

The industry rag also awarded the actress its Edinburgh Award for best actress (for the second time, in fact, after 2001’s Bed Among The Lentils).

Critics writing for the national press, too, had positive words for the three-hander about ex-Army man Maurice who is approaching the end.

McAuliffe, still perhaps best known for her role as Sheila Sabatini in Surgical Spirit, plays palliative care nurse Katy, who has come to help Maurice and his wife Helena.

“I wasn’t supposed to be in this,” she says, speaking to The Guide in a London rehearsal space before the play heads on a national tour, including a short run at Theatre Royal Brighton.

“It was supposed to be Kika Markham but she got the part of Mr Selfridge’s mother in the new TV series. So we had to move very fast because the brochure was going to be printed and Sheila and Julian said they wouldn’t commit unless they knew who the third person was. So I said I’d do it.”

Sheila Reid has most recently been on screen in Benidorm; she won two National Television Awards for her role as Madge Harvey.

Julian Glover played General Maximilian Veers in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. He was the Bond villain Aristotle Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only. Another plum role was as Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.

McAuliffe pulled together a heavyweight cast for a piece with hefty themes. The experience of putting together a show for Edinburgh a year earlier from a radio play she wrote for Radio 4 about her husband helped.

A British Subject was the true account of how Don Mackay, a tabloid hack on the Daily Mirror, became the first journalist to interview Mirza Tahir Hussain during his time on death row in Pakistan.

“What happens in Edinburgh is you turn to your mates who aren’t too proud to go up there for no money, no dressing room, to be surrounded by hooligans to do a new play that is probably going to ruin their summer. You tend to open your address book and go, ‘Who won’t be offended if I ask them to do this?’”

Reid and Glover were impressed with the script, but Glover was reluctant to read the play when he received it.

“But within the first six pages,” he says, “I thought to myself that this is good. In fact, this is bloody good. Good roles for men of my age are few and far between and I saw at once that Maurice was a fantastic part for me.”

Glover is now 77. Maurice, a retired jeweller who knew the good life – a mansion flat by Hammersmith Bridge in Barnes – is approaching 90. Illness has brought more than physical pain to the couple, though. Home for Maurice and Helena is now a bungalow in Penge.

“He has lost everything and she has lost her position in life,” explains McAuliffe, prickly as ever, sending back a coffee because it has not been correctly stirred. “They have lost their friends. It’s not right, it’s not fair, but that is the world we live in.”

Ghosts of people McAuliffe knew populate the play. Maurice, indeed, has echoes of her father-in-law, an old captain in The Rifles who believed that if he played life with a straight bat everything would work out.

“There was a belief in that generation that if you played by the rules you would receive a reward. As Maurice says, ‘We never outgrew our morals. Other people did.’ “The morals of the world changed around him and he didn’t change with them so he lost his money – he lost everything – but he didn’t do anything wrong.”

McAuliffe’s nurse is old-fashioned.

“She is based on somebody who works with people I know. She is very much out of step with the modern world given the standards and morals of the healthcare she believes in.”

It follows that the play has a traditional composition. We enter mid-scene and leave with the action ongoing. The play doesn’t start when the lights go up and end at curtain down. As such, it is a slice of life.

What drives Maurice on is not his 90th birthday but the dream that a promise made six decades earlier, on the eve of the Coronation, might come true. He was once in charge of the Crown Jewels but is now ridden with cancer and it is the eve of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

“What I wanted to do was set it up so it starts and the audience think they know what they are going to see. But it isn’t that. It isn’t a play about old people. It’s a love story about hopes and dreams and unrequited love and not seeing that the person standing next to you is the one you are in love with.”

McCauliffe says it’s all about things that would be relevant if the characters were 25, not 85, but with an added time pressure and doubt. “Doubt isn’t a characteristic well known in young people. Whereas when you get to your 80s, you doubt if you’ll get there, you doubt it’ll happen. It is something that undermines you.

“To me, the drama of two people in their 80s is far greater than if they were younger.”

  • Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Tuesday, February 26, to Saturday, March 2. Starts 7.45pm, matinees 2.30pm. Tickets from £10. Call 0844 8717650