Stephen Tompkinson is best known for being a nice man who fell in love with a nice Irish girl and did nice things to nice people in Ireland. He was also in Ballykissangel. He certainly greets me nicely and his hearty “'Ello there Tom” reminds me of friendly uncles and Lancashire hot-pots. I guess instantly that he is wearing velvet.
From the start he is genuinely effusive about this new production of Arsenic And Old Lace and all who are sailing in her. “It’s going terrifically well, we’re having a ball at the moment. The play has been a success for over sixty years now. It’s a bit like riding a rollercoaster, it takes care of itself in a way and you just try to cling on.”
Arsenic And Old Lace is a classic farce with a very 1940s-feel. It tells the story of Mortimer Brewster (played by a suitably wide-eyed Tompkinson), who visits his elderly aunts to inform them of his impending wedding. Upon arrival, Brewster is somewhat disturbed to discover that these apparently docile biddies are in fact mass-murderers. The aunts live with their brother, Teddy, who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and shouts 'charge' at any given opportunity. The play ran for 1444 performances on Broadway, but is best remembered for the 1944 film version starring Cary Grant as Mortimer. Is Tompkinson perturbed by having the suave shadow of Grant hanging over him at every punch line? “I didn’t worry about it at all until everyone started asking me how daunted I must feel! The film has always been a great favourite of mine, but I think I was able to make the role my own once I’d managed to get that inimitable voice out of my head.”
But how has he found doing an American accent on stage in the company of genuine Americans? In a second the Lancashire lilt is replaced by a New York drawl: “listen, now you’ve gotta get hold of George right away, he’s gotta review the play tonight, I can’t make it.” While this response makes no actual sense, the flawlessness of the accent renders my question irrelevant. The fact that many American audience members (who, by some staggering oversight haven’t seen any cable reruns of Ballykissangel), assumed that Steven was a bone fide American confirms the authenticity of his twang.
"I didn't worry about the Cary Grant thing until everyone started asking about it!"
Kesselring's comedy is now 64 years old, but Tompkinson vigorously rebuffs any sense that the play has aged: “Judging by the size of the audiences we are getting and their very positive reactions, the play has stood the test of time excellently.” Tompkinson also points out that the Americans in the audience, familiar with the play from its numerous Broadway runs, have found this revival to their liking.
Michael Richards gets all Boris Karloff with a tied-up Tompkinson
One of the play’s biggest draws – for English and American audiences alike – is the presence of Michael Richards, known to millions as the inimitable Kramer from Seinfeld. How has Tompkinson enjoyed working alongside one of America’s biggest comedy stars? “It’s been a delight. To be honest with you, that was the real big carrot that was dangled in front of me before I took the role! I’m a huge, huge fan and this is the closest I’ll ever get to working alongside somebody like Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. That sort of opportunity only comes along once in a lifetime and I grabbed it with both hands. He’s a wonderful fellow.” He also thinks that the influx of American stars into the West End is, in general, no bad thing. “I think it’s brought a lot of people into the theatre who wouldn’t normally have come. Theatres need audiences so this can only be a positive thing.”
It is with some relief that Tompkinson confirms that Michael Richards is one of the handful of people in the English-speaking world not to have seen him in Ballykissangel, and thus had no preconceptions about his personality or acting style. Does he ever get irked by the constant association with 'that nice priest chap off the telly'? “No, not really – if that is the reason why some people are coming to see the show, then I’m not one to bite the hand that feeds me. Fortunately, however, I think I’ve done other memorable stuff too. I think a lot of people remember Drop The Dead Donkey and Damien and Father Peter could hardly be more different!"
Despite this range of parts, a combination of Father Peter, a gentle face and a dearth of drugs or pornography scandals means that Tompkinson’s public image is very much that of a nice guy. Is such a reputation deserved or is he something of a sheep-clothed wolf? “It’s unfair to ask me that! If I really was evil I’d just lie! But if you ask my wife and our two-year old daughter, I think they’ll say I’m a fairly decent chap.” However, as he himself has pointed out, isn’t that just what a monstrous tyrant posing as an affable actor would say in a public interview?
"If I was really evil then I'd just lie"
Evil or not, Tompkinson has enjoyed almost constant employment since graduating from The Central School Of Speech And Drama in 1985 and walking straight into the part of the acerbic Damien Day in Drop The Dead Donkey. Since then he has been a stalwart of the television drama, starring in shows such as All Quiet on the Preston Front, Grafters, Ted and Alice and In Deep, (as well as Bally-K). During this time, he has made only occasional sorties into the theatre, appearing in shows at the Manchester Royal Exchange, Royal Court and Bush and touring with Tartufe with the National Theatre.
Was this television-dominated career path a result of chance or choice? “A lot of it has been down to chance. As an actor, you don’t really get to dictate over your own career, but if I had had control, I think I’d have taken exactly the same route again. I guess TV stuff is the most lucrative and when you’ve got a few of those under your belt you can go back to the theatre which is more personal. Something you do for you – although it’s kind of nonsensical putting yourself through that agony every night – because I do get so terribly nervous." Are any theatre roles he is dying to play? “I’d like to play Richard III one day. He’s the ultimate villain. But I like to think that some of the great roles I’m going to play haven’t been written yet!”
"I have over 50 velvet suits"
A towering Tompkinson in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Having covered trivial issues such as the play, his career and his essential human morality, the conversation finally turns to something important: Stephen’s dress sense. In 1998, at the last official census of his wardrobe, Stephen had 40 of his trademark velvet suits, each individually name-tagged, hanging neatly in colour-coordinated rows. How did this obsession come about? “It was just an accident of fashion really, I started getting into three-quarter length suits with a sort of frock-coat influence. Then I met a tailor called William Hunt, who specialises in that kind of gear."
There is also a romantic element to the story of Stephen's suit addiction, the type of tale that wouldn't be out of place in a romantic comedy: "I really fancied the lady who worked in the suit shop, so I had to visit it endlessly – buying suits that I didn’t need – in order to try and get a date with her! She's now my wife.” Does he have an estimate of how many velvet monstrosities he currently owns? “I’ve lost count. More than fifty though – perhaps I’ll stop at 52 and wear one a week…” Stephen denies that he had an epiphany where he suddenly realised that he was destined to be dapper: “There was a group of us in Sixth Form who liked wearing second-hand suits for some reason. I think we were modelling ourselves on people like Cary Grant.”
Stephen Tompkinson, it seems, has a habit for following in the great man’s footsteps.