“It’s pretty idyllic at the moment.” This is how actor Jo Stone-Fewings describes his life, and it is hard to disagree with him, writes Matthew Amer.
Stone-Fewings is currently starring in one of the West End’s biggest success stories of recent years, the long-running comedy The 39 Steps. He is the proud father of a three month old girl, and, when he talks to me on his mobile phone, he is walking his dog Digby in a sun-drenched park, enjoying the warmth of an early-summer afternoon scented with freshly cut grass and roses in bloom, before popping up to town for an evening performance of his show, which is short enough that “I can get back home and I can do my two hour stint [with the baby] before Nance [wife and actress Nancy Carroll] needs to take over again at 02:00 in the morning.” From where I’m sitting – a rather dingy meeting room, gazing out at a gloriously inviting azure sky – idyllic is precisely the right word.
Even when working, Stone-Fewings is having fun. The 39 Steps is not so much the tense, nerve-shredding thriller of the Hitchcock film or Buchan novel, rather it is a fast-paced comic adaptation with four performers playing a multitude of roles. “It’s light and it’s fun and it’s not King Lear, basically,” is how Stone-Fewings describes the production, which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2007. It is also short, running at about one hour 45 minutes, which is lucky, he says, as “I don’t think you could maintain the pitch of this show for more than two hours, because it goes at a hell of a lick.”
It is always harder to gain an insight into someone via the phone than when meeting them in person. The lack of visual connection makes reading body language as difficult as enjoying a novel with your eyes closed. It is a touch fortunate, then, that I have met Stone-Fewings before, so I have a fair idea that the gregarious, relaxed, talkative, jovial voice coming through the phone line is a fair representation of the actor’s personality.
It was at this first meeting, at a launch of a partnership between The 39 Steps and Mackintosh & Globetrotter, that he shared a delightful tale of production wardrobery. As Richard Hannay, the central role that Stone-Fewings plays, he wears a vest under a three-piece tweed suit and shirt. This is not to keep warm, but to soak up the excess of sweat that he works up while charging around the Criterion stage.
"It’s light and it’s fun and it’s not King Lear"
It is not the most delightful of stories, and probably shouldn’t be recounted over lunch, but it does express just how hectic and fast-paced a show The 39 Steps is. “You’re running off, you’re picking up a piece of scenery, putting it down,” he explains. “It’s total theatre; you’re always working.”
Stone-Fewings has been playing man-on-the-run Hannay for just over a month, having replaced Simon Paisley Day in late April, and already feels very much at home at the Criterion. Of course, it will have helped that he previously worked with two of his three co-stars, Martyn Ellis and Simon Gregor, on Swansea-set television comic-drama Mine All Mine. Being able to relax into the performance has helped him make the most of his starring role: “I think that’s what I’ve learned on the show, is not to think about things too much, just let them happen. It’s a good lesson because sometimes I think you can over analyse things, you know? Once you’ve got the style of this in place and you’ve understood its humour, it’s not some sort of mental Olympics; it is fun.”
It may even be as enjoyable as interviewing an actor while they are walking their dog. Every now and then, halfway through a sentence, Stone-Fewings breaks off to call to his enthusiastic canine as the energetic Digby shoots off to areas of the park where he knows he can find food. There is a lot of laughter as I imagine a particularly stubborn mutt chuckling to himself while his owner tries to keep his cool for the media while controlling an errant hound.
Stone-Fewings laughs too, a lot. There is a ring of enjoyment and satisfaction in his voice. Laughter, however, is not always welcome, and was something he was particularly wary of in his last London outing in The Country Wife. The show, a Restoration comedy, boasted a large cast, which added to his fear of the giggles: “When there’s more of you on stage you’ve got to be careful about that because it’s the worst thing. It creeps up on you on a wet Wednesday afternoon; you didn’t realise you found something funny, but there you are. You feel so ashamed when you laugh.”
Aside from the worry of corpsing, Stone-Fewings enjoyed the production, though he admits he found it harder being a small part of a large cast than a large part of a very small cast as in The 39 Steps. Although he is on stage for almost the entirety of the thrilling comedy, he prefers this to the on and off of The Country Wife; he does not have to listen to the tannoy to gauge the reaction of the audience or reinvigorate himself to dive back into the action. He is always at a high tempo, the same high tempo that requires that sweat-soaking vest and well judged gulps of water.
"You weren’t so much performing, you were living the play"
If The Country Wife is a contrast to The 39 Steps, Angels In America, in which he toured last year, is almost a completely different art form. As opposed to being concluded faster than you can say “Digby, Digs, come on, this way!”, the Daniel Kramer-directed revival of Tony Kushner’s hit double bill ran for seven hours, tackling themes of homosexuality, religion and AIDS. “As a piece to do every night it was full on; it was extraordinarily full on,” says Stone-Fewings. “I can’t quite believe I did that now. I don’t know if I could do that and have a baby at the same time.” He pauses before laughing again as he remembers one cast member, Adam Levy, who did just that. “I just remember the burnt out look on his face most of the time.”
The epic drama set in 1980s New York was, Stone-Fewings felt, “an extraordinary piece”, which, due to its sheer size and Kramer’s distinct vision, the cast had to spend three months rehearsing. “You got a very real sense at the end,” he says, “that you weren’t so much performing, but that you were living the play.” It is, he confirms, a very different experience from The 39 Steps, in which he is always aware of the performance.
In a nutshell, the contrast of these productions provides a handy theatrical cross-section of Stone-Fewings’s career. He very rarely plays the same role twice, preferring to shake it up and keep it varied. He traces this choice back to the eight years he spent at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the start of his career, where he played a plethora of parts. His next step, he says, is to leave the early 20th Century behind and aim for something completely different like a sci-fi part. That is, until I remind him that he has already appeared in Doctor Who, possibly the only time he has ever played the same part twice.
This doubling up of roles came courtesy of Russell T Davies, who Stone-Fewings refers to as “the Messiah of South Wales”, the writer/producer behind the revival of the all-conquering tea-time time-travelling series, and the writer of Mine All Mine. When the Welsh comic-drama was not commissioned for a second series, Davies contacted some of the cast and offered to write them a role in Dr Who. “The character was exactly the same as the one I had previously played,” laughs Stone-Fewings. Apart from the fact that he was running an intergalactic edition of Big Brother which actually supplied fodder to the Daleks, that is.
Digby is off again and Stone-Fewings is doing his best to control him while talking to a journalist on the phone. There is a touch of restraint about him that suits a man with a love for the 30s and 40s. I get the feeling that if he got really annoyed he might utter 'damn', 'blast' or some other suitably shocking outburst. Some may call it quaint, others polite; either way it is nothing if not endearing.
"Spielberg wants you to come along and do some stilt-walking"
Similarly, his admission of what drew him to acting in the first place brings a warm smile to my face: “I think I was about 12 when I decided that I wanted to be an actor, and that was probably to do with hormones actually.” It is always to do with girls, isn’t it? The young Stone-Fewings was seduced by the lure of Sarah Curry, a female he was “mad keen on” and who was going to be in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Eventually she dropped out, but by that time “I’d already committed to being Oberon, King of the Fairies. I couldn’t pull out. I went to the National Youth Theatre and that was a lot about women and meeting girls as well, actually. All I remember from youth theatre was drinking in pubs and snogging girls; that’s what people seemed to do, and then occasionally go on stage.”
No doubt it was at this stage of his burgeoning career that Stone-Fewings learnt the sacred arts of fire-eating and stilt-walking, two talents which remain on his CV to this day, a fact which both surprises and amuses the actor. Sadly he doesn’t do either anymore. Fire-eating, he says, “wouldn’t be very beneficial for child rearing” and he is unlikely to ever receive a phone call from his agent saying “Spielberg wants you to come along and do some stilt-walking.”
The most troubling thing about Stone-Fewings’s life at the moment is that his moustache, grown especially for The 39 Steps, could be preventing him from picking up television work. He couldn’t wear a stick on, he says, because the last thing he would want would be to take one of the few gulps of water he manages during the performance and return to the stage leaving the water bottle with fetching facial hair and himself with a rather bald upper lip.
If this idyllic world is just too much for you to stomach – I’m not bitter, honestly – there is one saving grace to hold onto. His beautiful baby daughter is about to start teething: “I don’t know what happens with that bit, all I know is it could be painful for all parties”. I’d prepare for Utopia to be broken by some rather high-pitched wailing.