Stephen Tompkinson on his role in Educating Rita

PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 April 2019

Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson in Educating Rita

Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson in Educating Rita

Archant

One of British television's most familiar faces, Stephen Tompkinson, comes to the Lowry this month with Willy Russell's much-loved play, Educating Rita

Educating Rita was written for the stage in 1980, by Willy Russell. The film, made in 1983, landed leads Julie Walters and Michael Caine BAFTA and Golden Globe Best Actor Awards, and it has held its own place in the collective British heart ever since. It's a great story, and – rare for its time – has a marvellous, strong female character at the forefront in Rita, a young hairdresser who wants to better herself by expanding her horizons through education, so signs up for an Open University course in English literature. This is where she meets cantankerous, alcoholic professor, Frank Bryant, played on this tour by Stephen Tompkinson .

'I have been reading this play since I was 14 years old,' says Stephen, 'but suddenly I'm in my early fifties and I realised that I was now the perfect age to play Frank.

'The play was actually brought back to my attention by Jessica Johnson [who is playing Rita in this tour.] I met her last year in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and she had recently performed the role of Rita. She said I'd make a perfect Frank. I was touring at the time with Art, and took the idea to David Pugh, who was producing the play. We read for David and for Willy Russell's daughter Rachel, trying to secure the rights for it. She thought we were a great match and would serve the play very well, and it went from there.'

It seems that the pairing of Stephen and Jessica then caught the attention of the great man himself, who attended rehearsals every week during the run up to launch.

'Willy has been very, very involved in this production,' says Stephen, 'and he's not been precious about his script at all; we've made a few changes, we've added a few bits. It's such a treat to have him involved, there are always many, many productions of Educating Rita going on, but this one has the man himself involved as well, so we're very honoured.'

As Stephen is so well known for his television roles, where he's worked in series that have been re-commissioned for season after season, including five series of DCI Banks, four series of Trollied, seven series of Wild at Heart and six series of Drop the Dead Donkey (when did he ever take a holiday?!) I wonder whether his heart lies there, or on the stage?

'There's been a wide variety of roles that have come my way and having the luxury of being able to mix the mediums – do TV for too long and I'm itching to get on the stage, and vice versa – so I'm always very content when I'm working and when it's something different from the last job. It keeps me alive and my motto has always been if I'm not getting bored hopefully that'll transfer to the audience. If I've been away from the stage too long I really do miss it. It's a very different set of acting muscles. TV and film is much more your life in other people's hands and you only get to do snippets of things in the story, and the only time you feel you have a bit more control and you can tell a complete story is when you're on stage. And of course you get that immediate reaction as well from the audience, especially with a comedy – it's the audience that teach you the play and let you know when you're getting it right, how to pace it, when you can put your foot on the accelerator and when to slow down. It's just a lovely shared experience, and it's different every night as the audience is different, so it keeps you on your toes.

'Touring highlights that especially, as you're moving around from place to place and it's always very different from area to area as well.'

Touring, to me, seems something I would not enjoy. How does Stephen cope?

'You do get sick of the sight of your suitcase,' he laughs. 'But it's a lovely way to see the country, and you do get most of your days free. I grew up in Lytham St. Annes, so I'm looking forward to getting to Salford and catching up with a few familiar faces and re-visiting a few old stomping grounds.'

30 April – 4 May | thelowry.com

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