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  • Eddie Hewitt

Imogen Stubbs - from stage to stage

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

In Things I Know To Be True, Imogen Stubbs rises high above the stage in a perfomance of dazzling intensity at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Before this, I last saw Imogen in a room above a pub in Islington. She was starring firmly on the floor in The Long Road South in the Kings Head Theatre. A small, intimate space – I was virtually on the stage. Clearly, no space is too limiting for this fine actress, and her performances are consistently engaging.

Imogen Stubbs, photo via (2016)

Imogen first came to my attention in A Summer Story, a devastating, Hardyesque tale of a rural maid who falls in love and plans to run away with her beau, only to be wantonly abandoned at the roadside and condemned to heartbreak for what little of her life remains. The story still haunts me.

Imogen as Megan in A Summer Story (1988)

The next time we crossed paths was at the Young Vic, where Imogen was playing Desdemona alongside Willard White’s Othello and Sir Ian McKellen’s Iago. Again a small venue, and again tragedy unbound at the end, but a powerful, exciting performance. There never was a finer Desdemona (Des-day-mona, as my old lecturer Frank Stack used to pronounce the name). You always worry when you see someone killed on stage, thinking it might be real (well it once happened in Midsomer Murders), but thankfully I was close enough to the stage to see her breathing.

With Willard White in Othello (1989)

Photo via The Guardian

With Ian McKellen in the same performance at the Young Vic

Photo (c) Donald Cooper

Imogen has starred in some much grander venues, notably the National Theatre in Betrayal (1998) and The Relapse (2001), the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in Private Lives (2011) and Orpheus Descending (2012), and the Salisbury Playhouse in The Glass Menagerie (2010). But nowadays she seems to prefer small, cosy theatres, some not much bigger than a good-sized living room, with kitchen chairs for seats.

Her recent choice of play has tended to be new, experimental or lesser known. In the latter category, she starred in Ibsen's Little Eyolf at the tiny Jermyn Street theatre in Piccadilly (2011). There was one way in, the same way out, and very little space in the auditorium. Then there was Salt Root and Roe at the Donmar Trafalgar (2011). Third Finger Left Hand – Trafalgar Studios again (2013). And Downstairs at the Hampstead theatre for Elephants (2014). All disturbing pieces. All captivating spaces.

Further back, Imogen unashamedly played a juvenile part in Big Kids on CBBC. Actually, I wonder if she does have some shame about this; it really was quite embarrassing, for me as a viewer if not for her as an actress playing a teenager, dumbing down and getting hyper. The last time she was even close to this silly was in Terry Jones' film Erik the Viking.

Imogen as Princess Aud in Erik the Viking (1989)

As Ursula Brangwen, Imogen enjoyed some moonlight skinny dipping and close contact with her teacher in DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Then there was a cameo role giving birth to Jack’s child in Jack and Sarah, and a strange series as Anna Lee, where she took on an unlikely T.V. role as a private investigator. A bit mixed on screen then, but the stage is where she excels.

The Rainbow (1988)

Let’s get back to the theatre for a few more favourites from over the years. A Marvellous Year for Plums at the Chichester Festival theatre (2012). Marvellous indeed. Saint Joan at the Strand in 1994 – an ingénue with passion and fighting spirit but destined for the flames at the end. Three Sisters at the Nuffield theatre in Southampton in 2002. Now this in one stage where I once strode across the boards too, at my graduation. I also used to have lectures in the adjacent theatre.

Then there was Little Revolution - a new form of play by Alecky Blythe, using real life recordings of the London riots in 2011. Social unrest recreated in a rather more refined part of London, the Almeida in Islington. Then Strangers On A Train at The Gielgud (2013). A disturbing thriller and a timeless classic. And then a spell at the Meunier Chocolate Factory theatre in Southwark for Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors – a time and place sifting comic masterpiece.

With Rachel Tucker in Communicating Doors (2015)

I’ll always regret the ones I missed. Most notably her performance as the Duchess in the Duchess of Malfi at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I can’t quite explain how I missed this. One of my favourite plays ever, despite what my English teacher did to it. Leeds was 200 miles away at the time, barely a short hop up the M1. I think it was just a period when I wasn’t patronising the theatre much. It shames me to think there was such a period in my life. Whatever the reason, it has left a frightful gap in my theatre-going which can never be filled.

The Duchess of Malfi - victim of 1614 Italian style brotherly obsession (2006)

Photo via The Guardian

I also missed Imogen in the role of Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. This was rather by choice. I simply wasn’t prepared to accept that Imogen was ready to take on a more senior role, no longer suited to the part of Ophelia. I’ve since learnt that she played a glamorous, sex-obsessed Gertrude, opposite Ben Wishaw’s Prince, but I’ve come to terms with missing out on this performance now.

As Gertrude, with Ben Wishaw, In Hamlet (2004)

Photo via The Guardian

Plays are rarely recorded and shown on general release, alas. The National bucked the trend in its 50th birthday year by showing a series of ‘live’ recordings of plays in cinemas around the country. Jonny Lee Miller was brilliant as Frankenstein’s monster, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein, as seen at the Olivier theatre via the Odeon in Bracknell. Not quite the same!

That’s the point, though. Part of the magic of a play is that you simply have to be there in the theatre to truly appreciate it. Theatre performances are a series of one-off events. Different each night. Not to be shared beyond the venue. This is terribly frustrating, but also reasonable. Still, I long to see my Duchess from long ago.

And one day, I trust I will see Imogen at the Palace. Buckingham (not the theatre in the West End). I’m thinking there is nothing like a Dame, and there is no actress more deserving of joining Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in this honour than Imogen Stubbs. Your Majesty, please add her name to your list.

© Eddie Hewitt 2016

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