Movies

Breaking Baz: Kristin Scott Thomas & Lily James Star In Hot New Play Headed To West End; Charlie Stemp Finds His Funny Bone In ‘Crazy For You’

EXCLUSIVE: Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James are joining forces to star in a scorching new play by Penelope Skinner, directed by Ian Rickson, that will open in London’s West End in the fall.

Pretty hot names to have atop a theater marquee, that’s for sure.

The drama, called Lyonesse, will open at the Harold Pinter Theatre in late September or early October. Official dates are being determined.

In this new work, Skinner — who won the George Devine Award for most promising playwright in 2011 for The Village Bike — focuses on Elaine (Scott Thomas), a reclusive and brilliant actress who disappeared from public view under mysterious circumstances.

Elaine summons Kate (James), a young film executive, to her remote Cornish estate to facilitate “her glorious comeback,” according to a production source who copped me a premise of the play.

“But who really controls the stories we tell and how we get to tell them?” I was told when I pushed for details from Sonia Friedman Productions, which is are producing Lyonesse.

It’s the third time that the two thespians have worked together, having appearing in the movies Darkest Hour and Rebecca, but Lyonesse marks the first time they’ve shared a stage.

That title intrigued me. Legend has it that once upon a time there was a stretch of land from the western tip of Cornwall to the Isle of Scilly some 30 miles away that was inhabited by a race of handsome people. The land was known as Lyonesse, and the tale goes that it was swallowed up by the ocean in a single night.

Something tells me we should be fastening our seatbelts at the Pinter!

That’s nought to do with the fact that James starred alongside Gillian Anderson in Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation of All About Eve, based on the 1950 Bette Davis movie written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Listen, I search for signs and meanings in almost every movie, TV show and play title. Look at the millions of words that have been penned on Succession!

Someone close to Lyonesse described it to me as a “sharply observed, passionate play for our times” — how so, I don’t yet know. Again, I’ll just have to be patient.

It’s good that Rickson and Scott Thomas are reuniting.

Rickson, when he was running London’s Royal Court Theatre, directed Scott Thomas as Arkadina, a great actress desperate to head off the advancing years, in a glorious production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor and Carey Mulligan.

There’s a connection to Lyonesse in there somewhere. I feel it in my bones.

Scott Thomas returns to our small screens — soon, I hope — in the third season of Slow Horses, with Gary Oldman (Darkest HourHarry Potter) as the brilliantly Falstaffian spook Jack Lamb and Jack Lowden (Mary Queen of ScotsBenediction) as 007 wannabe River Cartwright.

Scott Thomas plays Diana Taverner, their devious boss.

The actress also is in post-production on her feature directorial debut, My Mother’s Wedding, in which she also appears with Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, Emily Beecham, Freida Pinto and Mark Stanley.

James has Sean Dunkin’s The Iron Claw in post. She shot the sports drama with Jeremy Allen White (The Bear), Zac Efron (Hairspray) and Harris Dickinson (Triangle of Sadness). There’s also Saverio Costanzo’s Finalmente l’alba, in which James plays an unknown thrust into the world of cinema.

CHARLIE STEMP DANCES UP A STORM — AND HE’S FUNNY!

Broadway legend Susan Stroman beefed up her choreography for the Gershwin musical Crazy for You when she saw Charlie Stemp dance.

Cameron Mackintosh did the same when he watched Stemp’s moves during auditions for a revival of Half a Sixpence.

Mackintosh had just lost his leading man and gave the role to Stemp instead, thrusting the unknown into the spotlight at barely 22 years of age. His efforts won him an Olivier Award nomination for best actor in a musical.

RELATED: Broadway’s Susan Stroman Wants London To Go Wild Over ‘Crazy For You’ Again – This Time With West End Star Charlie Stemp

Jerry Zaks, Scott Rudin and Warren Carlyle had Stemp high-kicking in grand style when he played Broadway for five months as Barnaby Tucker in Hello, Dolly! 

Stemp must surely be one of the best West End theater dancers of his generation.

But he’s also a very funny guy.

Stroman staged Crazy for You last year at Chichester Festival Theatre, and it was a gold-star treat. The show’s transferring to the Gillian Lynne Theatre in Covent Garden from June 24 for a six-month season. 

The big surprise for me was Stemp’s comic timing as music-mad and dance-crazy Bobby Child. His interactions with Tom Edden’s impresario Bella Zangler are comic gold.

Stemp puts it all down to Edden. “In every way, in every sense,” Edden’s a comic genius, he says.

Having watched Edden a dozen or so times opposite James Corden when they did One Man, Two Guvnors at the National Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway, I readily agree. 

But a song-and-dance man who’s funny too is more of a rarity. Michael Crawford comes to mind. And now Stemp.

The actor, now 30, thinks that his comic timing has improved with “maturity and confidence.”

He grew up, he tells me as we tuck into a full English breakfast at the Dean Street Soho House in central London, spending as much time as possible with his maternal grandad watching British actor and clown Norman Wisdom on television. He’d watch Wisdom in the movie comedies The Square Peg and On the Beat “over and over on repeat.”

Stemp grew to love “those kind of amazing, old-school, physical comedians.” He’d watch Lee Evans: Big Live at the O2 every night. ”It was kind of a ritual for me growing up,” he explains. Later he progressed to Little Britain and Friends.

“Call it simple comedy, but I don’t think any comedy is simple“ he tells me, adding that a staple for him and his family was going to see the pantomime at his local theatre the Orchard in Dartford, Kent, birthplace of one Mick Jagger.

And working with Edden and Ian Bartholomew in Half a Sixpence has been beneficial in honing his funny bone. “Those artists who are just so precise, and their understanding of comedy, it’s like dancing. It’s about timing, it’s about rhythm,” he says.

He also praises Half a Sixpence director Rachel Kavanaugh for encouraging him to experiment and to add in a few comedy moments. 

An audience also can assist in sharpening your humor, Stemp believes. He recalls being in Half a Sixpence when it played at Chichester, and he worked out that a Monday night audience is always different to a Saturday audience, “so you always have to balance that.”

His instinct then was “if they’re quiet, you need to give more. But actually, it’s the opposite. You have to sit back. You have to let them come to you sometimes, rather than push harder.”

Stemp’s first time on stage was at age 5.

He was with his family at an Aladdin pantomime and got called up onstage and was interviewed by Cobra (Michael Willson) from the Gladiators TV show. His mum, a personal trainer, knew Cobra, and young Charlie blurted out “My mum knows you!”

To this day Stemp can remember the audience “kind of being there, and the lights.”

Wistfully, he adds: “The fun is where the stage is. The comedy element of it was always kind of with my family, that was always there and in everything we watched” — and with his older brother, who did stand-up.

His sibling would come home from gigs and tell young Charlie to watch Billy Connolly and other comics.

Dancing came much later, when he was 11, and initially he wasn’t crazy about it. “I hated it. Absolutely hated it,” Stemp says.

Why? “Jock straps!” he responds scornfully.

“An 11-year-old boy was putting on a jock strap for the first time and I was like: What is this? It was ballet,” he says.

This was Billy Elliot before Billy Elliot

But then someone told him he was good at it. Soon “it became the main focus of my life. I think by 13 I was doing judo, rugby, football — and dancing.”

He played rugger on the wing and was coming into ballet classes with “broken arms, a broken nose and broken fingers.” 

His dance teacher told him that he’d have to choose: sport or ballet?

Dance won.

The first professional show he booked was at his local Orchard Theatre doing Snow White with Craig Revel Horwood (Strictly Come Dancing) and Ann Widdecombe, the one-time Tory minister-turned-performer. 

Widdecombe would sit in the wings “and wait for her next scene. She was petrified about missing a cue.”

Widdecombe often is treated as a figure of fun, and while Stemp does not share her politics, he’s rather find of her.

He’d gotten into trouble at his drama school and, unbeknownst to him, Widdecombe sent a letter to the school’s principal. “She saved me. She wrote saying how wonderful and professional and kind I was. She saved me loads of trouble. I think it was just a coincidence that she wrote it. I never told her what was going on with me at the school.

“Look, I would always do what everybody always does and just ask her how her day was and how she was doing.” Stemp adds. “And she always seemed like a really lovely woman who was just starting off in theater and I was wanting to make sure she was OK.”

As he prepares to open at the Gillian Lynne with Edden and leading lady Carly Anderson, he’ll need to wind down playing football with his mates and any other fitness activities that might harm him. “As long as I’m safe it’s OK. As soon as the show starts, it’s not possible to do those things” because he likes to keep up a performance schedule and not let down those who have paid good money to see him and his fellow cast. “I will be doing eight performances a week as much as I can,” he says.

What he does instead of football and stuff is gardening. I fell off my chair because I couldn’t picture Charlie Stemp gardening. 

He gives me a look and says he’s “obsessed.”

“At the moment I’ve got 12 different vegetables in the garden. I’ve got five fruits — six fruits if you count the lemons,” he boasts.

We’ve been chatting away for hours, and he’s got to go and meet up with Edden to discuss some funny business for Crazy for You and then run it past Stro — how the theater world refers to Stroman.

Stemp admires Michael Ball, Michael Crawford and Hugh Jackman.

I can see Stemp in that lineup. If he plays his cards right, he just could end up as the greatest showman.

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