Tim Pigott-Smith proves he’s still one step ahead of the game

Rehearsals for Stroke of Luck at Park Theatre. Tim Pigott-Smith (Lester Riley) and Kirsty Malpass (C

Rehearsals for Stroke of Luck at Park Theatre. Tim Pigott-Smith (Lester Riley) and Kirsty Malpass (Cory Riley). Photo credit Howard Grey- - Credit: Archant

In his latest play, Tim Pigott-Smith plays a Long Island TV repairman recovering from a stroke after the death of his wife. As “feel-good” stories go, Stroke Of Luck might not seem an immediate candidate, but its lead star is acutely aware of the zeitgeist.

“For a long time, we thought Britain was the master of dark comedy. Now look at something like Breaking Bad – a TV show that’s actually about a chemistry teacher who gets lung cancer. Now that sounds hard, it actually put me off watching it for a long time.”

Having made his acting breakthrough in 1984 with hit TV series The Jewel In The Crown, Pigott-Smith has ridden the waves of an ever-changing landscape that has seen him appear in blockbusters like Gangs Of New York and Quantum Of Solace, as well as smaller-screen projects like Miranda and Downton Abbey.

Now, however, he is returning to the stage at the Park Theatre. Stroke Of Luck sees his character, Lester Riley, marry a young Japanese nurse while the rest of his family squabble greedily over the minutiae of his will. But, cunning as a fox, it isn’t long before Riley turns the tables.

“It’s like a latter-day American Volpone,” says the 67-year-old, “in the way these people behave when a will is involved. I’ve known Larry (Belling), the writer, for over 30 years and he wrote the play because he got fed up of leaving the theatre feeling wretched. It’s a feel-good story – it’s funny, dark, naughty and slightly politically incorrect.”


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Joker

Despite Lester’s physical incapacitation, Pigott-Smith makes clear that mentally he is “sharp as a tack”. Describing him as a joker with some truly sweet moments, the character seems a far cry from the more villainous roles Pigott-Smith became renowned for earlier in his career.

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“I think I’ve moved away from that now,” he assures. “It’s never limited me. I was in a very popular TV series and people still recognise me from that, but it hasn’t stopped me from doing something like Miranda now. The trick after The Jewel In The Crown was to go back to theatre, which I’ve always been more interested in.”

Among the comedic moments of Stroke Of Luck, Pigott-Smith appears particularly touched by the relationship between Lester and his bride-to-be Lily. “A true element of joy,” he points to the simple poignancy of one scene where, bedridden in hospital, Lester is greeted by Lily, who brings a Japanese tea set and proceeds to lay it out in a moving ceremony.

Reflecting on his earlier career, the Highgate resident is acutely aware that these sort of scenes might not have always been possible and is all the more thankful for it.

“We’ve made huge progress in theatre,” he explains. “It wouldn’t have been easy being a black actor when I was starting out, for instance, and it would have certainly been inconceivable to have a black Henry V – as we have had with Adrian Lester. In the 60s, a lot of barriers were pushed down, but for a while, it was still the case that if a black actor was good, you wouldn’t notice he was black, but if he was bad, it was because he was black.”

Paying tribute to a more recent innovation, the actor also has kind words for the recently opened Park Theatre. It is no surprise – Pigott-Smith did after all help with its initial fundraising – but he harbours genuine enthusiasm for its friendly feel. “It’s a really exciting place,” he says, “there are always piano books lying around, people rehearsing and what I really like is that it doesn’t really feel like a new theatre.”

While he is currently locked deep in rehearsals for the play, Pigott-Smith nonetheless keeps a keen eye on television and has watched its recent evolution with curiosity. With shows like Sherlock and Downton Abbey increasingly captivating audiences home and abroad, he’s aware that British drama has rarely sustained such a rich vein of form.

“When I was younger doing TV in the early 80s, we had the mini series and that seems to be what we’re going back to now. With something like Sherlock, the audience get to know the characters and that’s what keeps them invested.

“Generally, though, soap opera is the perfect medium for television. In Downton Abbey, for instance, it gets to the stage with characters like Mr Carson where everyone knows where he’s coming from and that’s when it becomes easier for actors and writers. The last thing you need for a television show is a good idea – the most important thing is the execution, the characterisation.”

Stroke Of Luck runs at The Park Theatre until March 2. For tickets and more information, visit www.parktheatre.co.uk.

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