Stephen Tompkinson is a familiar name on screens both large and small, having starred in series like Wild At Heart and DCI Banks and in films such as Brassed Off. The 47-year-old Englishman is only now making his musical theater debut on the West End in a new production of Monty Python’s Spamalot directed by Christopher Luscombe. With previews starting November 14 in advance of a November 20 opening at the Playhouse Theatre, Tompkinson took time one recent afternoon to talk about comic influences, working with Kevin Spacey and more.
Have you ever acted in a musical?
Not professionally, though I did do a lot of prancing around in a toga in The Boys From Syracuse when I was at drama school in north London; it’s taken about 25 years to let the scars from that heal, so now is just about the right time to have another go [laughs].
Luckily, the role of King Arthur is not the most vocally daunting.
I think Rex Harrison made a lot of people feel more comfortable when he half-spoke/half-sang in big musicals like My Fair Lady and Dr Dolittle. He gave us all courage by showing that you don’t have to belt out numbers if you concentrate on what you’re doing. In the case of Spamalot, I had been a huge fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail [the musical’s 1975 source], so it was too tempting an offer to turn down. I ran it by my 12-year-old daughter, Daisy, who said, "Oh, papa, I'd be so proud if you did this." That made the decision.
This latest version is being billed as “zingier” and “sillier” than ever. What does that mean?
That’s basically about the fact that [the musical] has been reduced from what it was when I first saw it with Tim Curry on Broadway and again at the Palace Theatre [in London]. They’ve changed all the costumes and scaled it down, so it’s more in the style of an early Python revue show: It has felt a bit like getting back to basics, but at the same time, all the numbers are there and the book hasn’t changed.
Have you sought advice from any of your predecessors in the part?
Amazingly, Simon Russell Beale [Curry’s replacement] was above us in the Jerwood rehearsal space working on Privates on Parade, so I popped in and said hello. Simon said a beautiful thing, which is in keeping with the spirit of the show—that, deep down, Arthur knows he doesn’t have a horse, but he’s determined to give the appearance that it’s possible he has one. That just about sums [the character] up. He knows that the mantle of king has been thrust upon him, and he’s determined to set a good example. The fact is, he’s a good guy.
Sounds like perfect holiday season fare.
Exactly. It is a feel-good show and pure escapism; it’s a perfect show to chase away the winter blues and a perfect Christmas show for office outings and for anyone who’s done pantomime and is looking for something else!
Who were your comic influences?
I started off with Laurel & Hardy and Morecambe & Wise, then Monty Python came totally from left field, and it was so refreshing. They were great performers, and the writing was really intelligent, as well. As bizarre and anarchic as it is, there’s a really detailed structure to their work that has to be admired, so doing a show like this does take me back to the playground [laughs].
It’s been eight years since your last London play, Cloaca at the Old Vic, which happened to be the opening play of Kevin Spacey’s regime as the theater’s artistic director.
Yes, and Kevin also directed. I thought his choice of Cloaca was fantastic, and that play remains something I am incredibly proud of. It got some negative press, but I think some of that was typical journalistic pessimism that the British press can be guilty of at times. But, you know, Kevin has carried on, and whenever I see him, it’s always as if I just saw him yesterday. He has absolutely loved his time there, and we have loved having him.
Do you think [Spacey] fell victim to latent xenophobia?
There was a sort of snooty element about this foreigner coming in to do our theater, but the fact of the matter was that no one else was doing anything there. His talent and commitment have shamed people and proven that his intentions were nothing but honorable and came from absolutely the right place. Kevin has been more than a credit to the London theater.
It’s been a long time since you were on stage in London.
I’ve been doing [TV series] Wild at Heart in South Africa for the past seven years for five and a half months of every year. In between, I have done shows, just not in London. At the moment we’re waiting to hear whether there will be another series of DCI Banks, which is pretty serious stuff, so Spamalot has been the perfect antidote.
Has America ever beckoned as a possible home?
I’d love the opportunity to go over and do a series like Homeland or Hatfields and McCoys. I know that Brassed Off did very well there, Drop the Dead Donkey won a couple of Emmys, and I was in the final Prime Suspect with the amazing Dame Helen [Mirren]. I do get quite a few fan letters; it would be interesting to take the time to have a look around there.
Spamalot is booking until April 13, 2013, but you are only contracted for 12 weeks. Can we assume that a contract extension awaits?
Who knows? Maybe the producers are hedging their bets. If I’m disastrous, they can always bring in someone else! [Laughs.]