There’s an Art to making a top play - DCI Banks star Stephen Tompkinson talks ahead of Birmingham stage appearance
They’ve known each other for around 20 years.
So for Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson, lining up in a major production of Yasmina Reza’s Olivier, Tony and Moliere award-winning comedy Art, translated by Christopher Hampton, is an absolute joy to behold.
The show plays at Birmingham Hippodrome from next Monday though to Saturday as part of a major tour. And audiences are in for a treat.
Stephen says: “We’ve had a very positive reaction so far.
"We’ve known each other for 20 years and we’re playing characters whose friendship is supposed to have last for 25 years. It’s a very enjoyable part to play.”
WATCH: The stars of 'Art' talk about the play which is heading to Birmingham Hippodrome
Stephen’s television credits include five series of DCI Banks, four series of Trollied, seven series of Wild at Heart, six series of Drop the Dead Donkey (British Comedy Award Winner for Best TV Comedy Actor) and three series of Ballykissangel while his films include Phil in Brassed Off.
His theatre work includes Spamalot, Rattle of a Simple Man and Arsenic and Old Lace in the West End, Cloaca (Old Vic) and Tartuffe (National Tour).
Art is a particular favourite of Tompkinson, however. He first read the script 18 years ago and saw the original production with Ken Stott, Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney.
“I came into the play about two years after that and funnily enough Nigel was in the adjoining rehearsal space doing a version that was about to go out on tour.
“Art deals with three Parisian friends. One buys a white canvass, or so it seems, but if you look at it more closely you can see there’s more layers to it. He’s paid a small fortune to it.
“His other friend, Mark, played by Dennis, hates the painting and thinks he’s lost his marbles. My character is in the middle trying to placate them.”
Stephen has loved the play since day one. “I was dazzled when I saw the first night of the play.
"There was a magic chemistry between the three actors because the writing was so good.
“Nigel’s done it a few times before – he’ll have played it more than 800 times by the end of the run.
"And Dennis was the only one who was new to it. He came in on the first day of rehearsal and knew every single line because he assumed we would have known it inside out having played it before.
"As it turned out, he was the only one who was word perfect and Nigel and I were surprising how quickly we’d forgotten. We only had 2-and-a-half weeks to rehearse it.”
Stephen says the show changes from town to town as different audiences react to it.
“In many ways, the audiences teach you the play. They teach you where the laughs are and where to take your time a bit more.
"It’s different every night. It keeps you on your toes. It’s an hour and 20 straight through with no interval. Once the train leaves the station it goes off at a rate of knots.
"The three of us sit down and have a debrief after a show because it’s always changing and developing, so there are slightly new things coming to it and we run those by each other.”
Though Stephen has spent much time in TV and film, he enjoys the thrill of live performance. Being on the road is a thrill.
“I love being on the road. It’s a great way to see the country.
“The variety is what keeps me going. I do enjoy it. I started in radio and moved into TV. If you haven’t done theatre for a long time you miss it and it’s a different set of acting muscles. You’re reliant on the comedy in this piece.”
His greatest film role was Brassed Off, in which he starred opposite his great friend, the Oscar-nominated Shropshire actor Pete Postlethwaite.
He has only the fondest of memories. “I did my first TV with him as well, which was tales of Sherwood Forest.
"Then I think when the opportunity came up to do my first feature film, Brassed Off, Pete put a word in and we ended up as farther and son.
"There was a tremendous honesty about his performances. When it was just he and I sharing a scene, you could stare into Pete’s face and he could make everything else disappear.”
The new version of Art is being produced by David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers and Pugh says it’s an honour to get to grips with the world-leading show.
He says: “It is 20 years since Dafydd [Rogers] and I first produced the comedy masterpiece ART in the West End, and the original post-London tour played for 78 weeks. This time, we want to break our own record; in fact, we want to play as many theatres as Sir Ken Dodd has played in his wonderful career, and with this marvellous cast, we think we have every chance.”
Nigel Havers’s films include Chariots of Fire, A Passage to India, Empire of the Sun and The Whistle Blower.
He has starred in many television productions, including The Charmer, Dangerfield, Manchild, and, more recently, the hit US series Brothers and Sisters, Lewis Archer in Corrie, Benidorm and Lord Hepworth in Downton Abbey.
Denis Lawson is known for his roles as John Jarndyce in the BBC’s adaptation of Bleak House, for which he was nominated for an EMMY award, and as DI Steve McAndrew in BBC One’s hit series New Tricks.
In film, his notable credits include the roles of Gordon Urquhart in the film Local Hero and Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy. On stage, he won an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Jim Lancastar in Mr Cinders at the Fortune Theatre, and he was nominated for an Olivier for his role as George in La Cages Aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre.