Two years ago, Toby Stephens opened at the Donmar Warehouse in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal just as his first child was born. So he celebrated the arrival of his second by opening there again last night in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
His wife Anna-Louise Plowman gave birth just three weeks ago but that didn’t stop her sitting in the stalls with her mother-in-law, Dame Maggie Smith, to see Toby roll around on the floor with Gillian Anderson in Zinnie Harris’s Edwardian update.
Anna-Louise is a striking six-foot New Zealand blonde with curly hair, lately seen to advantage in Holby City on the box. She looked absolutely stunning, and I couldn’t stop myself congratulating her on regaining her figure so soon after the baby arrived.
Dame Maggie shot me an odd look and said, “Where have you been?” “The toilet and the bar, ” I replied truthfully as this was now the interval. “No, don’t be stupid, why do you look so well?”
“Oh, it must be from jogging on the heath in the sunshine, when we have some,” I replied. This drew an even blanker stare and then a look of horror: “Jogging?” “Yes, well, I was jogging this morning actually, but I fell down a foxhole and twisted my ankle.”
Maggie’s face collapsed in giggles. She was rather too glad, I felt, that athletic virtue had been suitably rewarded with a nasty turn. “At least it was a foxhole, and not a manhole, which is what Jack Tinker fell down in Spain about twenty years ago,” I rallied.
“What? A manhole? You mean to say that poor little Jack fell down a manhole? Did he really? Completely?”
I started to explain that Jack and his partner Adrian had had a very good lunch and were talking animatedly as they walked back to their patio for a siesta. Suddenly, Adrian realised he was talking to himself. He turned round, and saw a group of Spaniards gathered round a manhole, looking into it, trying to identify the strange little squeaks …
At which point the lights went down and the second act started, which was just as well really. Dame Maggie had already had more than she’d bargained for in coming to an Ibsen play.
Her own favourite role of all time was in Ibsen, playing Hedda Gabler in Ingmar Bergman’s remarkable production at the National Theatre, with Toby’s dad, Robert Stephens, as a superb, surprising Loevborg.
Ibsen can be stifling, which is why I’d made sure of my full quotient of fresh air earlier in the day. And the day before had been spent travelling back and forth to Walsall in the West Midlands to see the RSC’s new Comedy of Errors performed in a school gymnasium.
It was in this play that the fledgling RSC forged its identity, in a brilliant production by Clifford Williams which was, like so many brilliant productions (Trevor Nunn’s of The Revenger’s Tragedy, for instance) a stop-gap, last-minute affair.
The Comedy of Errors is one of those plays that always seems to bring the best out of the RSC, and Paul Hunter’s revival is no exception. There’s an improvised, commedia dell’arte feel to it that is absolutely right for the play, and the nine and ten year-olds of White Hall Junior School were enchanted.
All the actors, drawn from the currrent As You Like It in the Courtyard, play musical instruments and Sophie Russell as the abbess stamps her foot, segues cheekily into a tap routine and leads a lovely ensemble dance number.
James Tucker and Richard Katz are a brilliant pair of Antipholuses, Jonjo O’Neill and Dyfan Dwyfor blithely funny as the Dromios, with Mariah Gale as the Courtesan and Christine Entwisle as a bellowing, but still sexy, Adriana.
The tap-dancing abbess will be putting me in the mood for the new musical version of Sister Act in which movie of course Maggie Smith starred alongside Whoopi Goldberg, her role now taken on stage by Sheila Hancock.
Those of us who’ve lately fallen down foxholes will be quite happy — however many face-pulls that elicits from Dame Mags – to see actors going into their dance routines: break a leg, as they say on the other side of the pond.