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Mark Shenton: My 13 favourite theatre stars

Denise Gough, Simon Russell Beale and Noma Dumezweni. Photos: Craig Sugden, Tristram Kenton and Getty Images

We hear a lot about star and stunt casting, and how names are needed to help sell a show. But there is a huge difference between ‘star’ casting of actors like Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith or Mark Rylance, who have earned their stripes in the theatre before becoming film names, and ‘stunt’ casting, where famous names are parachuted in to sell a show.

I recently wrote about the casting of Tanya Burr [1] in a fringe show at Southwark Playhouse. To her credit, she got in touch with me to clarify that she has been taking steps to get the required training. And I’ve just seen Fat Friends the Musical, with former cricketer-turned-TV-pundit Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff in the cast. It’s only a comparatively small role, and he’s not much of an actor, but his singing is credible enough. Plus, he generates massive amounts of goodwill that brings the audience on side immediately.

Fat Friends – The Musical review at Milton Keynes Theatre – ‘homespun charm’ [2]

Both of these castings could bring in new theatre audiences and their success could also mean the continued employment of other significantly more qualified actors.

But we are also blessed in the UK with lots of brilliant actors who largely make their careers in the theatre. Though they may not necessarily sell tickets in their own right, they offer a benchmark guarantee of quality.

Here are a baker’s dozen of my favourite leading actors who star primarily in plays. Next week I’ll offer my baker’s dozen of favourite actors who work mainly in musicals, though there are many who, quite rightly, move seamlessly between plays and musicals.

Sorry if your personal favourite isn’t listed, but please feel free to add them in the comments below.

1. Simon Russell Beale

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Regularly touted as the greatest stage actor of his generation, Beale is one of the leading lights of London’s National Theatre, where he will next appear in The Lehman Trilogy in July. Other recent major London stage roles include King Lear (also at the NT), Temple (Donmar Warehouse), Mr Foote’s Other Leg (Hampstead Theatre and Theatre Royal Haymarket) and Prospero in The Tempest (Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford and the Barbican).

2. Rory Kinnear

Rory Kinnear in Macbeth. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The NT’s other leading man of choice is Rory Kinnear, whose Macbeth [3] has just opened on its stage. Though the reviews for this production have been decidedly mixed, there’s no doubting that the star billing of Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady M have contributed to its sell-out advance sale.

3. Lia Williams

Lia Williams in Oresteia at the Almeida. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Lia Williams in Oresteia at the Almeida. Photo: Tristram Kenton

One of my absolutely favourite actors, Williams is currently a knock-out in Mary Stuart [4] at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre, alternating in the title role and as Elizabeth I with Juliet Stevenson. As I wrote in my interview [5]with her, “Williams is no supporting player, but a fiercely committed, rawly passionate and deeply sympathetic actor who ought to be a lot better known than she is.”

4. Penelope Wilton

Penelope Wilton in Taken at Midnight. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Best known nowadays for her appearance as Mrs Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey, Wilton is a stage animal through and through, who can currently be found magisterially leading the company of Fanny and Alexander [6] at the Old Vic. She won the 2015 Olivier Award for Taken at Midnight that transferred from Chichester to the Haymarket.

5. Lesley Manville

Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey Into Night at Wyndham's Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Lesley Manville in Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Wyndham’s Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Though she was nominated for an Oscar this year for Phantom Thread and has also made regular starring appearances in Mike Leigh films, Manville is one of our very best stage actors, currently in Long Day’s Journey into Night [7] at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre. As Kate Kellaway wrote in her review for the Observer [8], “the evening belongs to Lesley Manville as the emotionally itinerant mother, Mary Tyrone. Her performance is a tour de force.”

6. Lucian Msamati

Photo: Mark Douet

In 2015, Msamati became the first black actor to play Iago for the RSC (opposite Hugh Quarshie’s Othello), and as he told me a year later [9] in an interview for The Stage: “A part of me thought it was about time! I’d been offered Othello in another production, and I said thanks, but no thanks. Iago is the far more interesting character.” Right now, he’s starring at the National as Salieri in a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, a role originally created on the same stage by Paul Scofield. Born in London but raised in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, Msamati’s other NT performances include Death and the King’s Horseman, The Overwhelming, The Comedy of Errors and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

7. Roger Allam

Roger Allam in Limehouse. Photo: Jack Sain

Though he’s now starring in TV’s Endeavour, Allam’s career has been largely focused on the theatre, becoming a leading player at the RSC (where he famously originated the role of Javert in Les Miserables), NT (original cast of Michael Frayn’s Democracy) and at Shakespeare’s Globe (Olivier award for Falstaff in Henry IV parts 1 and 2). He’s about to reprise his Hampstead performance in the West End transfer of The Moderate Soprano to the Duke of York’s.

8. Noma Dumezweni

Noma Dumezweni at the Olivier Awards. Photo: Pamela Raith

There was an outcry in some uninformed quarters when it was announced that Noma Dumezweni would play Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child [10] at the Palace Theatre – a role she is now reprising in its Broadway transfer. Author JK Rowling defused it by pointing out: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.” And as she told the Observer: “With my experience of social media, I thought that idiots were going to idiot. But what can you say? That’s the way the world is. Noma was chosen because she was the best actress for the job.” And anyone who knows her stunning earlier work on stage, including taking over the title role of Linda at the Royal Court at four days notice from Kim Cattrall, knows how brilliant she is.

9. Nancy Carroll

Ben Batt, Nancy Carroll and Joe Murphy

A regular at the NT, where she has appeared in The Voysey Inheritance, The Man of Mode, The Talking Cure, After the Dance (opposite Benedict Cumberbatch) and The Magistrate, the glorious Carroll is also in The Moderate Soprano (soon at the Duke of York’s).

10. Geoffrey Streatfeild

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne in Cell Mates at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
Geoffrey Streatfeild and Emmet Byrne in Cell Mates at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner

Soon to star in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival of The Way of the World, Streatfeild was previously wonderful there in Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg, but is also brilliant in everything he does, including most recently, Cell Mates [11] at Hampstead and Young Chekhov at the National.

11. Denise Gough

Denise Gough

Currently reprising her role as Harper in the National’s Broadway transfer of Angels in America [12], Gough’s star-marking performance in People, Places and Things saw her win the Olivier and Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards and subsequently take the play to New York’s St Ann’s Warehouse. She’s one of the most electrifying stage actors around.

12. Joseph Millson

Joseph Millson with the award for best performance in a play

With a versatile career on stage and television, Millson’s notable stage roles have stretched from originating the role of Raoul in Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, panto at the Old Vic, the title role in Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing for the RSC (opposite Tamsin Greig) to most recently playing the title role in the RSC’s The Rover and both sons to Stockard Channing in Apologia [13] at the Trafalgar Studios. An American friend who saw the latter without knowing he was playing both seriously thought it was two separate actors, testament to his brilliance.

13. Tanya Moodie

Ashley Zhangazha and Tanya Moodie in Terror by Ferdinand von Schirach ay the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ashley Zhangazha and Tanya Moodie in Terror by Ferdinand von Schirach at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Photo: Tristram Kenton

One of my favourite things about arriving at Heathrow airport is to see the warm figure of Tanya Moodie on the posters of London personalities welcoming you to London. And seeing her name on the billing for a theatre production is similarly warming. She is extraordinary in everything I’ve seen her in, including most recently Trouble in Mind [14] that transferred from Bath’s Ustinov Studio to London’s Print Room, and plays at the National, RSC and London’s Tricycle. She will next appear in the UK premiere of Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking at Trafalgar Studios 2 from April 18.