Weekend interview: Imogen Stubbs

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Stage veteran Imogen Stubbs brings a new play to York and talks to Phil Penfold about the importance of daring to dream and the vital role of the arts in schools.

Life for Imogen Stubbs goes on much as usual for an actor always in demand. The RSC stalwart is just about to open a new play at the Theatre Royal in York, and there have been the usual rehearsals, both in London and in the city itself. She is a judge on the annual Women’s Prize for Fiction, which has meant reading dozens of novels and she has been keeping an eye out for productions of her play We Happy Few, a mainstay of many an amateur dramatic cricuit.

She has also been keeping the fires burning in her floating home on the Thames, which she shares with her partner, the actor and dramatist Jonathan Lewis, and another couple.

“I spent most of my early years growing up on a barge. I can remember my mother telling my brother and I to make those ‘logs’ that used up old newspapers. You had to soak them in water and then roll them up and and wait for them to dry. I suppose that it was all very ecologically sound, but I can’t recall them ever being much good.

“My mother was wonderful at recycling and what today they’d call upcycling. If she had a garden space to potter in, she was forever replanting it, and when she made pasta, she made it on the scale of a production line. It was always hanging out to dry on every surface she could find.”

Stubbs was born in Rothbury, in Northumberland, and she believes that which has given her a life-long love of the countryside, and more specifically the wilder bits of it. The family later moved to Portsmouth, and then to London, where she was educated at two of the very best independent schools, but the outdoors is in her blood.

She is also one of the hardest-working actors in her business. “If Stubbs does it,” a friend says, “She does it 100 per cent. There is nothing held back. She puts herself into it all with an energy that is jaw-dropping”.

The production of The Be All and End All – a new play by her actor-writer partner Jonny, and part of a trilogy – will be her first visit to York.

“You know, my daughter Ellie (with her former husband Sir Trevor Nunn) was offered a place at the university when she was deliberating where to study. I really did want her to take it, so when she went elsewhere I was so disappointed. It would have given me the best excuse to get up as often as I could, and really explore the place, so now I’m here for a while I intend to get out and do just that.”

When she herself left home, Imogen went to Exeter College, Oxford, where she read English, and graduated with a First. That, she says now, came as a genuine surprise because she had never felt that she was academically brilliant.

“My spelling is terrible, and I have no sense of grammar,” she says. “Now when I look back I do wonder how much use that degree has been to me. If at all?”

Perhaps, but it was at Oxford that she had her first brush with acting and it was her performance as Irina in Three Sisters at the Oxford Playhouse that marked her as one to watch. From the university’s hallowed towers, Stubbs headed to RADA and from there it seems as if it was a fairly effortless springboard to professional roles.

Early on she made her mark with appearances in classics such as Richard II and Othello, St. Joan, Heartbreak House and A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as many forays into film and television.

“What I missed out on was a good couple of gap years,” she says. “Some time where I should have gone off and seen a bit more of the world. I think that a lot of young people commit themselves to work and a career straight after their education ends, and that, for quite a few of them, time to get off and explore other places, other cultures, would really broaden their experience. ”

With acting having given Stubbs a career and a lifelong passion she is a vocal campaigner for the need for artistic opportunities in schools.

“There are countless numbers of schools which have axed their music and drama departments – so what is the talented child who could have a career or even an interest in, let’s say, playing an instrument to do?” she says. “In primary school, the first thing that youngsters are allowed to be is creative.

“They make things, they sing songs and their imaginations know no limits. But, as soon as you get to senior school, the cry is ‘Right. Stop all that and learn this…’. “

Imogen has just celebrated turning 57 and perhaps not surprisingly, Lewis’s trilogy runs under the umbrella title of Education, Education, Education with The Be All and End All directed by York Theatre Royal’s own artistic director Damian Cruden.

“I don’t want to spoil the plot, but it takes place at the time when a teenage boy has just taken his exams, and he is isolated from all his school-friends for a short while because they are about to sit the same tests.

“His father is an MP, and I am his mother, who is quite a leading light in business. They are both desperate that he gets his grades, but in a world where cheating has become a code to live your life behind nothing is straightforward."

As for her own writing, Stubbs reckons she might have another play in her following We Happy Few, which was inspired by the all-female Osiris Players, who toured Shakespeare plays around the United Kingdom during the Second World War.

“I do carry a notebook around with me, and I am forever jotting things down. Amateur companies like We Happy Few because it has a big, predominantly female, cast. It was done in the West End, some critics thought it was a sprawling mess, others quite enjoyed it.

“I have always lived by the maxim that one ought to be brave enough to get out there and make a fool of yourself, because, if you don’t, how will you ever learn anything at all?”

The Be All and End All, York Theatre Royal, to May 19. 01904 623568, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk