Before being cast in Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing which is touring to the Lyceum next week Charlie Stemp was unaware of the playwright’s reputation.
He admits: “I didn’t know much about him and as soon as I knew I was in this I read up as much as I could about him and talked to my mates who are into plays – and he’s a genius.”
The actor who has made his name in musical theatre, most notably opposite Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters in the Broadway production of Hello Dolly and his breakout performance as Arthur Kipps in Half a Sixpence in the West End, is making his debut in a play, albeit . a musical comedy.
“As with all Tom Stoppard plays there are some intellectual moments and also some great slapstick.
“I think a lot of people are put off Stoppard some times because the writing is so intelligent,” he says.
“I think what’s great about this one is we have some genius comedians in the cast – Matthew Cottle and Simon Dutton are now my idols. I watch them every night and am astounded at how brilliant their comic timing is.”
The play is set aboard a transatlantic liner, the SS Italian Castle, as two famous playwrights feverishly try to rehearse their latest show before landing in New York for opening night.
But they are constantly distracted by their flaky composer’s attempts to end it all, having overheard his actress lover confess her feelings to leading man.
Stemp, who is playing an eccentric cabin steward called Dvornichek, explains: “My character brings the story together, he is the narrator in some ways. He helps explain the story at the start of the show and I think I have one of the best parts. I just come on stage, say a few funny lines, and then leave.
“I am constantly in the mix, bringing things on for different actors and having lots of fun. It’s perfect for me because I am always moving.“
That’s a legacy of his childhood. “I was very physical as a child, too much, so my mum had me doing judo, rugby, football, cricket, you name it.” But judo was his big thing and that brought him to Sheffield as a teenager to compete in the Nationals.
“I did judo until I was 16. There was no big moment when I stopped there was just a gradual takeover of dance. It became my life slowly. I stopped football because it clashed with a dance class and I stopped judo because my dance teachers were fed up with me coming in with black eyes and broken fingers.”
So dancing was the performance art that first grabbed him. “I wanted to be in Matthew Bourne’s company and then in my third year in college I tore a cartilage in my knee and I was out for four months,” he recalls.
“Then one of my teachers said there’s no point in you coming into college and then said, ‘why don’t we put you in for singing lessons so at least you are doing something’ I didn’t necessarily take to it at first but I did learn how hard it was and I worked hard and realised how physical it is, singing. Eventually it became a real joy.”
Stemp will resume his West End career in the role of Bert the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. “We start rehearsals at the end of August and I am very excited. It’s a role I have wanted to do since I was a kid.
Sheffield is the last date on the Rough Crossing tour. As for Tom Stoppard, “He came to see the show in Bath and we got to meet him and he was very complimentary and kind. He took us all for high tea, he is the epitome of civilised.”
Rough Crossing is at the Sheffield Lyceum next week, from Tuesday to Saturday, April 23-27.