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Stephen Tompkinson and Andrew Lancel on their shared love of the beautiful game

The stars of a new play about the friendship between two literary giants reveal how it feels to be bringing it to an audience, and their shared love of cricket.

A new play is exploring the relationship between two Nobel Prize-winning literary giants, and their shared love of cricket. And it’s being performed by two actors who feel similar levels of affection for the game.

Andrew Lancel (Harold Pinter) and Stephen Tompkinson (Samuel Beckett) in Stumped by Shomit Dutta @ Lords. Directed by Guy Unsworth.©Tristram Kenton
Andrew Lancel (Harold Pinter) and Stephen Tompkinson (Samuel Beckett) in Stumped by Shomit Dutta @ Lords. Directed by Guy Unsworth.©Tristram Kenton

In Stumped, Stephen Tompkinson and Andrew Lancel portray playwrights Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter as they count the scores at a cricket match and reflect on life, art, and many other things besides. The play’s writer, Shomit Dutta, knew Pinter personally and even played in his cricket team

The show was due to premiere at Lord’s cricket ground last September, but when the Queen died it was postponed as a mark of respect, but now it is finally on tour. Theo Bosanquet talked to them for the Cambridge Independent:

What is Stumped about?

Stephen: Not many people know that Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett had this great friendship, as well as a shared love of cricket. If you had the chance to be a fly on the wall observing two Nobel-winning writers scoring a game of cricket, would you drop in? We hope the answer is yes!

Andrew: I think primarily it’s a play about friendship. It’s about these two people whose minds are the size of continents, and they land at a cricket match where they dance around each other with respect, love, disdain and a lot of humour.

Stephen: Yeah, it’s a joy to play. It’s about these two men who really, really liked each other for a long time. The play is only looking at a snapshot from the mid-sixties, but it was a friendship that endured right until Beckett’s last days.

It’s been some time in the making

Andrew: We’ve both been involved with it for ages. It was meant to premiere to a live audience at Lord’s last September, but when the Queen died this was postponed. We did an on-demand filmed version, so it feels like it’s been out there for some time, but it will be wonderful to finally perform it to an audience.

Stephen: Shomit Dutta, who played cricket in Pinter’s team the Gaieties, has done such a good job with the script. It’s a really respectful love letter to both men. There are hints of Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter – it’s a beautiful piece to perform. Shomit has revisited the script since the first version, and I think the new sections have really added to it.

What is it that makes cricket such an appealing sport to actors and dramatists?

Stephen: Cricket is a wonderfully unique sport. I’ve always loved the fact that everyone wears white, so there’s a parity between the players. There’s a wonderful spirit to the game, all around the world. It’s very apt for these two unique gentlemen, Pinter and Beckett, to find common ground with the game and its many peculiarities.

Andrew: It also spans the generations. My daughter’s five, and she’s just started playing at her school. Three months ago I read the eulogy at my the funeral of my aunt, who was 91, and I’d say at least 40 percent of it was cricket anecdotes. It has a huge meaning in my family, young and old.

Were you fans of your characters before doing the play?

Andrew: A few years ago I was asked to direct a production of Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, so I had a look on my shelves to see which of his works I already had. Turned out I had them all, along with two biographies. He’s just always been there – and having this interest has been really helpful when it comes to playing him. You want to really inhabit the character rather than just offering a caricature.

Stephen: It’s such an honour to play Beckett, he’s such a massive literary figure. There isn’t as much footage available of him speaking as there is for Pinter, but there’s certainly some stuff out there, and a lot of written testimony. Most people probably know him for his striking physicality, and I think the play provides a great opportunity to see beyond that.

How is your own chemistry?

Andrew: When I met Stephen I told him I was a huge fan, so it’s been a joy. We have an uncannily similar affection for certain things, like silent movies and variety acts, and we’ve really supported each other doing what is a hard but really rewarding play.

Stephen: We’ve been very lucky, and found each other really easy going. We’ve worked hard, and it’s felt very much that we’ve been on the same journey at the same time. The only ingredient that’s been missing is people coming to see us, which will bring so much more.

How did you both get into acting initially?

Stephen: For me it was school, and the old story of a particular teacher who saw something in me and encouraged me to do plays. This led to me being bitten by the acting bug and I’ve never recovered. I find it endlessly challenging and fascinating, and at its base level being part of storytelling is a beautiful thing.

Andrew: Well it all started when I watched a show called Drop the Dead Donkey, and there was this particular actor… No, in fact I was a singer at school, and I used to go round old people’s homes performing, which got me my Equity card. In the village I lived in wanting to act was very unusual. But I started doing bits of am dram and it grew from there. I never trained, but I’ve always felt doing it is the best way to learn.

You’re both known for your TV work, but do you feel theatre is your natural home?

Stephen: They both have advantages. I do enjoy being able to walk out with a live audience and tell a story from the beginning through to the end. The process of filmmaking can be very bitty. Theatre is definitely more scary, the feeling of flying without a safety net, and that applies even more so in intimate venues – but it’s a challenge I relish.

Andrew: For me it’s more about the part. I do love the chance to create a role from scratch, and you get more opportunities to do that in telly. Interestingly this project is a bit of a hybrid, because Original Theatre filmed the production, so we had to think about camera angles and all the rest of it. I love the process of editing as well, that really gets my blood pumping.

You’ll be performing the play during this summer’s Ashes. What are your predictions?

Stephen: I like the way the current team shows that cricket is always evolving. The Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes era has blown people’s minds. I would never make predictions but I think it will be a fascinating series. I hope we can see some of it!

Andrew: It would be great if we could watch some of it between performances. When we were filming at Lord’s, we were sat in one of the boxes like the cats who got the cream. I’m hoping the Hampstead Theatre, which is just round the corner, might have some connections and can sneak us in.

Stumped is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre From Monday, June 5 to Saturday June 10. Tickets from £20. Box office: cambridgeartstheatre.com/whats-on/stumped

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