Could Toby Stephens be the most English actor working today? It’s not just his RSC training and West End background (or his red hair and that plummy voice). It’s that he’s been in just about everything we English hold dear: from Bond to Jane Eyre, Shakespeare to Agatha Christie – even the Flashman adventures.
Now Stephens is back in the West End – where his career began – starring in a revival of the late Peter Nichols’ acclaimed heartstrings comedy from 1967, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Or at least it used to be a comedy. When we meet backstage at the theatre, Stephens is the first to admit that, while the play has bagged good reviews, the laughs haven’t exactly been forthcoming. ‘I don’t think if the audience know whether they should laugh or not,’ he says. It’s not that it isn’t funny; it’s more the subject matter.
In the play, Stephens plays Bri, a slightly nebbishy teacher who, along with his wife Sheila, spends his evenings and weekends caring for their profoundly disabled daughter, Josephine. Drawing on the playwright’s experience of caring for his own daughter, who died aged 11, Bri’s coping mechanism is to make jokes about the situation. And some close-to-the-bone ones at that. He invents unlikely personalities to ascribe to Josephine, confined to a special wheelchair and unable to support her own head, and then ad-libs them with his wife. It’s all slightly awkward – not least as the actress playing Josephine is herself affected by cerebral palsy (the impressive Storme Toolis).
Stephens is right about the audience being conflicted: it’s noticeable, for example, that the laughs flow more readily when Josephine isn’t on stage – as if the punters are nervous about offending Toolis. Does he worry about some of the words used (cripple and vegetable both feature) in the play? Particularly since, as he’s found out, the show often attracts punters in the same situation as Bri and Sheila, or affected by disabilities themselves. ‘I think if it was written by somebody who hadn’t gone through the same experience as Peter Nichols, I would be more hesitant about doing it,’ he says.
It helps, he notes, that it’s such a humane play. Not just based on lived experience, but also hugely empathetic to Sheila and Bri, and kind towards Josephine. It stands up particularly well again some of the less charitable plays currently in the West End. Just half a mile from here, Matt Smith and Claire Foy play a self-important couple sniping at each other over whether having a child will damage their environmentalist credentials. By contrast, Bri and Sheila – wearily deciding who will change Josephine’s nappy this time – come across like a model of Saint-like devotion. It’s old-fashioned virtue up against new-age virtue signalling.
How is Stephens enjoying being back in theatreland? ‘In some ways, it gets scarier the older you get,’ he says. I ask whether beginning his career on the stage was a conscious decision – an attempt perhaps to prove his own acting credentials rather than risk being seen as relying on his impeccable lineage (Stephens being, of course, the son of acting royalty Sir Robert Stephens and Dame Maggie Smith). ‘Theatre is very different to film or television,’ he says. ‘On stage, there’s nowhere to hide.’
He’s not averse to television, mind you. He currently plays the lead in two big American serials: the Netflix reboot of Lost in Space, which launched last year, as well as a high-budget pirate drama called Black Sails. For someone used to BBC costume dramas, is it surreal to be working with Netflix-style mega-budgets? He says that – for all the money – they’re not too heavy-handed to work with. ‘They very rarely come to set,’ he says. ‘They’ll probably come right at the beginning, once midway through, and then again at the end. Just to check that everything’s okay.’
It helps, he says, that Hollywood has come to trust British actors – particularly those who’ve passed through the RSC. ‘They like the fact that we turn up and actually know our lines,’ he says. As opposed to what? ‘A lot of American actors, especially in Hollywood, haven’t really been in trained. They might look great on camera, but they don’t have the quality of drama schools that we do.’ What’s more, Brits are less prone to diva-ish behaviours. ‘We don’t stamp our feet and throw our toys out of the pram if we don’t get the right kind of trailer on set,’ he says. ‘We just get on with the job and we’re grateful for the work.’
Aside from Netflix, he’s also taken a mid-career diversion into action films – even making a movie with adrenaline-supremo Michael Bay. ‘I don’t know why, in my late forties, somebody decided I’d make a good Navy SEAL,’ he laughs. Yet he’s donned the camo twice now – and quite convincingly too. Or at least when he’s in-role, that is. On YouTube, there’s a delightfully-entertaining video in which Stephens endures a promo interview for one of his testosterone movies. Ruggedly unshaven and wearing scuffed body-armour (why?), he comes across a bit like Ross Kemp in his Extras cameo – i.e. thespy but not terribly intimidating. He winces slightly when I bring it up.
On top of that, he also played Tony Blair in a slightly overcooked speculative drama about the Northern Irish peace process (‘I turned that down at first,’ he says – ‘Why bother after Michael Sheen has done Blair so well?’) and continues to voice James Bond in the radio dramatisations of the Ian Fleming novels. When compared to all that – Navy SEALs, spies and grandstanding Prime Ministers – playing a browbeaten teacher and reluctant carer must come as something of a gear-change. It is, at least, a chance to express his soft-side again. Once again, there’s something terribly English about that.
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg is at Trafalgar Studios in London until 30 November.