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Three men and a painting: Stephen Tompkinson on how hit comedy Art imitates life

PUBLISHED: 15:43 19 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:31 20 April 2018

Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson in Art. Photo: Matt Crockett

Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson in Art. Photo: Matt Crockett

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A painting that threatens to wreck the friendship of three men is the subject of smash hit comedy Art. Stephen Tompkinson tells us how he is having a ball being reunited with Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson for its 20th anniversary tour.

Stephen Tompkinson, Denis Lawson and Nigel Havers star in Art. Photo: Jon SwannellStephen Tompkinson, Denis Lawson and Nigel Havers star in Art. Photo: Jon Swannell

Modern art is a question of taste. Masterpiece or rubbish everyone has an opinion. It’s in the eye of the beholder and that makes it ripe for clashes of views.

Imagine your friend of some 25 years has just paid a small fortune for an all-white painting, do you tell them you think it’s a load of rubbish?

You don’t need to imagine this scenario has it’s the subject of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s multi-award-winning hit play which returns to the region next week as part of a 20th anniversary tour.

It is a comedy about the friendship between three old friends in Paris — Serge, Yvan and Marc, who discover they have very differing opinions about what constitutes ‘art’ and how that friendship falls apart when one of them spends a vast sum of money on a painting.

Stephen Tompkinson, Denis Lawson and Nigel Havers in Art. Photo: Matt CrockettStephen Tompkinson, Denis Lawson and Nigel Havers in Art. Photo: Matt Crockett

It is about how taste, which seems so superficial, can wreak conflict between people.

“I think modern art does do that,” says Stephen Tompkinson, who plays Yvan, opposite Nigel Havers as art-lover Serge and Denis Lawson as modern art sceptic Marc. “It polarises people’s opinions. If you ever go around an art gallery you’re a very brave person to put your head above the parapet to say that you really like something the other person hates or vice versa. Suddenly it’s almost like they don’t know you because they can’t fathom why it would appeal to you. It’s very much in the eye of the beholder.”

Yvan is a neurotic but gentle-hearted sales rep who doesn’t care about the painting and just wants everyone to be friends.

“I think he represents most people’s opinions in the audience,” says Stephen. “He doesn’t particularly like or dislike this painting, but he can’t really understand the brouhaha that it is causing or the amount of money that it cost to buy.

Stephen Tompkinson in Art. Photo: Matt CrockettStephen Tompkinson in Art. Photo: Matt Crockett

“He is rather stressed out because he has just started a new job and he is getting married for the first time in a couple of weeks and here are his two best friends at loggerheads and he is desperately trying to keep the peace.”

It is a role that he is reprising after 18 years. He was first cast as Yvan two years after the premiere at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre. He was 34 at the time and it was his West End debut, so it has a special place in his heart.

“I absolutely adored the play the first time round,” he says. “I think Yasmina’s writing is superb. Good dialogue is very easy to learn and a joy to play, bad dialogue is very hard, so you can really tell that this play is special and it is a particular favourite of mine.”

His return to the play also marked a reunion with his co-stars. “The fact that I’ve known Nigel and Denis for over 20 years is a real bonus. I was delighted when we were all cast together,” he said. “We get on terribly well. We’re having a ball doing it. It’s a bit of a holiday with a little bit of shouting at night!

“It’s a very intense hour and 20 minutes that we’re on stage. You do feel like you’ve had a huge mentally workout by the end of the evening. Doing two shows a day is quite draining.”

That all three actors are returning to the play older has added an extra dimension.

“It’s now a 25 year friendship,” explains Stephen. “It allows the audience to invest a lot more into the core of the relationships and the possibility that it might disintegrate before your eyes over this painting that Nigel’s character has brought and Denis’ character absolutely hates. The stakes are suddenly higher.”

You wouldn’t think a play that consists of three men — a dermatologist, an aeronautical engineer and a sales rep stationery sales rep — and their fraught relationships would be an unlikely subject for a hit. Yet Art has been translated into 30 languages, enjoys numerous sell-out tours and won a Tony, an Olivier, and New York Critic’s Circle, Evening Standard and Moliere awards.

Stephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson in Art. Photo: Matt CrockettStephen Tompkinson, Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson in Art. Photo: Matt Crockett

Its subject of taste and men discussing art is also very French. “Yasmina has always very specific about that,” says Stephen of why the UK production is still set in Paris, despite the cast being and speaking English.

“She has always insisted that it be set in Paris and that it’s about three Parisians. We’re in Manchester at the moment and if she’d set it here, for example, with three blokes they’d have to talk about football, but there is no mention of sport. She never wanted it to be performed by women either because she feels that their reactions would have been very different.”

And does he think the play gets to the truth of the relationships between men? “Yes definitely — and it’s written by a woman. I think she did base it on three of her friends one of whom did buy a similar painting and the effect that it had.”

It helps of course that the play is also very funny. Having made his name in Drop the Dead Donkey and comedy films like Brassed Off, it’s something he can appreciate.

Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson star in Art. Photo: Jon SwannellNigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson star in Art. Photo: Jon Swannell

“This play has an extraordinary effect on an audience,” he says. “They let you know where the laughs are, where you can put your foot on the accelerator and when you need to slow down because you don’t want them to miss anything.”

But having also appeared in dramatic roles like DCI Banks and most recently Abby Morgan’s drama The Split, which coincidentally is on BBC1 next week, he also relishes Yvan’s big moment in the play.

“He has his big aria speech that is a bit of a showstopper, a five minute rant about his upcoming wedding and whose names get to appear on the wedding invitations. It’s five or six pages long but there are only two sentences in it. It starts that both stepmothers want their names on the invitation full stop; then the rest of it is all just one sentence. You just have to take a deep breath and go for it!”

• Art is at Norwich Theatre Royal from April 23-28, 7.30pm, 2.30pm April 25 and 28, £35-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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