Stephen Boswell finds fame at last (40 years late!)
PUBLISHED: 17:55 14 December 2015 | UPDATED: 17:56 14 December 2015
Suffolk actor Stephen Boswell has spent his life as a jobbing actor. Now he finds he's very much in demand. He tells Andrew Clarke about his latest role in a new Calendar Girls musical
“It’s taken 40 years to be considered as an overnight success,” laughs Suffolk-based actor Stephen Boswell.
Stephen, following his West End run as the comically resourceful butler Bates, in the Olivier-winning musical Top Hat, is now enjoying life in The Girls, a new musical based on the award-winning film and play Calendar Girls.
It’s been developed by its original author, Tim Firth, and Take That singer-songwriter Gary Barlow, who first encountered one another at school. “Gary and Tim have written a wonderful piece. They have enlarged the play to take in more of the husbands and the children and explore their reactions to what is going on.”
Stephen has been involved in the show since the very early workshops were held more than a year ago to develop the original play into a musical and is delighted to be able to create a new role which may see him once again back in the West End.
“It’s so exciting,” said Stephen, who moved to Suffolk in the early 1980s. He was a regular at the Wolsey Theatre when it first opened in 1979, playing the lead in the first production, The Servant of Two Masters directed by Dick Tuckey, and was a member of the company for the best part of 10 years.
During that time he also appeared in a big screen adaptation of the Agatha Christie whodunnit The Mirror Cracked, opposite Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, with Angela Lansbury as the octogenarian sleuth Miss Marple. But, it’s Top Hat that he credits with having transformed his career.
“It’s made a huge difference. It’s not a question of fame, it’s just the opportunity to do good, interesting work and Top Hat changed my life. Suddenly I’ve got a prestigious agent who’s putting me up for wonderful things like this.”
Stephen has been involved with the development of Tim Firth’s new musical for more than a year, taking part in four workshops, and has watched it evolve. Just recently Tim and Gary Barlow have added a new opening number, Yorkshire, which has transformed the start of the show.
For those who assume that The Girls is just going to be the play Calendar Girls with added songs, Stephen says they will be in for a pleasant surprise.
“This has quite a different feel to it, although it is obviously based on the same story. In the original film, and the play, the photo-shoot comes at the end of Act One, whereas in the musical it comes at the very end of Act Two, so we get chance to really know these marvellous ladies and their families, and we get to know the background to the shoot and what drives them. We get to see the doubts and we get to see the different relationships.
“It’s lovely to see a show which provides so many great roles for women of all ages. It is such a hard life for actresses because there are so few really good parts for them, and that’s why I get cross when I see actors like David Suchet playing Lady Bracknell when there are so many great actresses who would kill to play that role.” The workshop process has seen Stephen perform opposite three different on-stage wives.
“I am the oldest of the husbands and my wife is played by Sara Kestelman. It’s been great fun because I have had three different wives over the past year or so. I have done four workshops all together.
“When I joined in March last year, my wife was played by Angela Richards. Then, for the next three workshops my wife was played by Michelle Dotrice, but then Michelle got the part of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest in London and so couldn’t go with us to Leeds, which was when Sara Kestelman came on board.”
Stephen believes that the strength of the show lies in Tim’s ability to write meaningfully about relationships and Gary and Tim’s knack at creating songs with heart. He even gets to sing a duet with co-star Jeremy Clyde.
“In our first duet Jeremy and I are talking about our wives and whether we’re happy about them taking their clothes off. We are trying to kid each other that they are not going to do it.” The cast recently received a boost from the original ladies from the Yorkshire WI who came to see them rehearse in London and gave them a standing ovation.
Stephen was also part of the workshop production that went to the Yorkshire village of Burnsall in March to give the ladies a preview of what was then a work in progress.
“It was lovely to go back to the village hall where it all started. I met all the original people, which was fascinating. They’re lovely and they are very involved with it all.” Stephen says it’s every actor’s dream to create a part from scratch. He’s now had two such roles in high profile shows in quick succession.
“I know Eric Blore created the character of Bates in the film Top Hat, but my Bates on stage was very different, and I thanked Matt White, the director and adaptor, for giving me the opportunity to create such a gorgeous part. I think I had a much better deal than Eric Blore, and here I am creating something new again. It’s a thrill for an actor to put their stamp on a part.”
The Girls opens in Leeds before moving to The Lowry Centre in January and it’s hoped this will be followed by a transfer to the West End sometime next year. This latest run of success has vindicated Stephen’s choice of career. The stage was in his blood from the very earliest days of his life in Cheltenham. “My mother was mad keen on the theatre and she was a prime mover in saving the town’s Everyman Theatre from being turned into a warehouse. I used to work there in the summer holidays and saw people like William Gaunt and Maggie Jones – Blanche from Corrie – working there.
“What really fired my enthusiasm was when she used to take me to Stratford to see the Royal Shakespeare Company every year from the mid-50s.
“We went every year and I saw Anthony Quayle’s Bottom in Midsummer’s Night Dream in 1954, then Olivier’s Macbeth and Gielgud’s Prospero in The Tempest. I was captivated. I knew that I wanted to be on the stage.” The family ran a small hotel where artistic people used to stay.
“I met Ralph Vaughan Williams there in 1958 and I was thrilled to see Alfred Brendel practising on our piano when he stayed with us.” The day after he left school in 1964, he joined the Salisbury Playhouse as a student assistant stage manager for £1 a week. His pay was raised to £2 a week for falling out of a cocktail cabinet in One For The Pot.
“I could only do it because my mother supported me,” he says. After working in a number of bookshops for a couple years Stephen realised that he really needed to act.
“In 1969 I enrolled in the Bristol Old Vic theatre school. Jeremy Irons enrolled the year before me and Pete Postlethwaite joined the year after, so I was in good company.” In 1971 he graduated and joined Perth Rep as ASM (assistant stage manager) before moving to the Liverpool Playhouse where he first met Dick Tuckey. This, in-turn, led to getting a job at the Wolsey and eventually moving to Ipswich.
Now life has taken another turn, which might see Stephen back in another West End hit musical.