Charlotte and Theodore: in conversation with Kris Marshall

Lotty and Teddy are two dreamers wanting to make a difference in their worlds – but can they do this on an academic campus? Melissa Blease chats to Bath boy Kris Marshall who joins Eve Ponsonby in a two-hander at the Ustinov.

Where did your long-standing relationship with actor Kris Marshall begin? It may have been 23 years ago, when the long-running BBC sitcom My Family became part of our families and introduced us, along the way, to Ben and Susan Harper’s eldest son Nick, an affable, laid-back layabout with a heart of gold who reflected the air of almost surreal anarchy that only the most interesting characters bring to family life.

Or perhaps Marshall melted your heart as super-loveable Colin in Richard Curtis’s 2003 Christmas rom-com Love, Actually: when Colin packed his bags and took off to America in search of a woman who would see his bungling ‘Britishness’ as a perk rather than an impediment, legions of women across the UK slumped in their cinema seats and secretly wished he’d stayed put, with them.

Or perhaps quirky crime/comedy drama Death In Paradise sealed your fate: when Marshall joined the plot as DI Humphrey Goodman in 2017, his tricky, largely unrequited love life proved to be as captivating as the crimes he almost preternaturally solved.

The Ustinov is a brilliant space, especially for two-handers; it’s direct, and intimate, and we have the time to really bed the play in, and make a home there

Oh, but there’s yet more – much, much more – on Marshall’s CV: multiple, highly acclaimed stage roles including Treats opposite Billie Piper (which opened at the Theatre Royal Bath in 2007 before transferring to the West End); the London revival of Glengarry Glen Ross alongside Christian Slater; a stint as Tom Parker in British historical drama TV series Sanditon; Samuel Pepys in the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of his 17th-century diaries… and now, he’s preparing for a lengthy residency at the Ustinov, starring with Eve Ponsonby in the world premiere of Ryan Craig’s taut two-hander Charlotte and Theodore, which is poised to introduce us to an as-yet-unseen Kris Marshall altogether. But before we move on to explore Kris’s Teddy, I have to ask – is Kris the busiest, most adaptable actor on the planet?

“I’ve never really thought of myself as that!” he says. “The way I see it, I’ve just been very lucky; I’ve been doing what I do now for what, 30 years?”

Okay, there’s a certain amount of good fortune involved in any successful career. But there’s surely more to Kris’s success than that? “Okay, luck has been strongly involved, but I guess I’ve worked pretty hard at what I do. I bang on doors, I don’t take no for an answer, and I’m generally good at making a nuisance of myself, so that’s helped as well. I think perseverance and tenacity are, in my world, a virtue – they have to be. But I know I’ve been fortunate too, and I want to acknowledge that. And my work has allowed me to travel to the kind of amazing places that, especially when you’re young, are dream locations. But I try not to travel too far away now – my wife and I have two children, aged 10 and 7; they’re a force of nature, but they’re amazing! And basically, I just want to hang out with them, at home, as much as I can.” And for many years, home, for Kris, was here in Bath.

“I’m a proper Bath boy, born in St Martins before growing up in Corsham, Wells, and in and around the city,” he says. “My wife and I moved back to Bath when we had kids, but we relocated to the New Forest last year, basically as lifestyle choice. When I’m not working, I’m all about just enjoying myself as much as possible – I’m big into sailing, surfing and skiing… oh, and Scrabble! All the S-words, really. As much as I love Bath, there’s not much in the way of coast there! So now we’re a 10-minute drive from the beach and a five-minute drive from the forest, and I love it. But I’m looking forward to spending five weeks back in Bath, and I’m really looking forward to working at the Theatre Royal again – I’ve done the main house, but never the Ustinov, so I can’t wait.” And the play – and the role – that Kris can’t wait for promises to bring all manner of explosive theatrical fireworks to the tiny Ustinov stage.

“The play’s writer Ryan Craig is a very old friend of mine, as is his brother Dean,” says Kris. “I’ve been friends with Ryan since I did one of his very first plays: Happy Savages at the Lyric, Hammersmith, back in 1988. But I haven’t worked with him since then, and I know that the Ustinov is the best place for his new one. It’s a brilliant space, especially for two-handers; it’s direct, and intimate, and we have the time to really bed the play in, and make a home there. I’m really excited about it, but I’m slightly daunted too, as it’s a monster of a part, and I’ve got to get it right, because I can’t blame the writing if I don’t!”

The play definitely asks its own questions… but for me, it’s about provoking dialogue – and all art, ultimately is about provoking discourse

So what does the ‘monster of a part’ involve? “Without giving too much away, it’s basically about two professors on a campus of a small but illustrious UK university. Charlotte (Lotty) started off being Theodore (Teddy’s) assistant, but they got together, got married, had kids. We follow them over the whole trajectory of that ten-year process, jumping forward and backwards in time, exploring the power dynamics within a relationship between two people working in the same field, all played out against a backdrop of the world we live in, and what’s happening on university campuses right now: the new generation’s perspective of the old guard in terms of free speech, cancel culture, the rise of the individual, and more. It’s a brilliant, strong play.”

… and it sounds as though we may be on controversy territory? Unusually, given the pace of our conversation so far, this question gives Kris pause for thought. “Put it this way,” he says; “I once overheard a BBC journalist say, ‘look, I’m not here to make opinion, I just ask the questions – and that’s how I’m going to answer your question.’ The play definitely asks its own questions, but I’d hasten to shy away from the word controversial. It’s debate-provoking, and there are controversial themes to consider. But for me, I think it’s really about provoking dialogue – and all art, ultimately, is about provoking discourse. But it’s also very funny, and quite acerbic, and heartbreaking too; it covers a whole spectrum, and a whole gamut of places to go as an actor.”

Ah, back to the art of The Craft. “It’s too easy to say that I prefer stage when I’m doing film and film when I’m on stage, but that wouldn’t be entirely true,” says Kris who, unlike many of his peers, started off in good old-fashioned repertory theatre rather than taking the now-conventional drama school route.

“I was probably one of the last actors of my generation to start off in rep, but it proved to be a really good training ground for life in the theatre, which is where my roots remain even though I don’t go on stage that regularly these days. It’s not a planned thing, but I seem to go back to live theatre every five years; a repetitive pattern, in a nice way – a circle of life thing, a good rhythm. But I have to say, the older I get, the scarier I find live theatre, and not just because of the passing of the exuberance of youth. But I’ve learned to take care of myself, and hopefully I’ll find the process as enjoyable as I did when I was younger. Looking back and seeing yourself visibly age on screen isn’t the nicest thing – and I’ll be turning 50 soon!”

Hang on, Kris! You don’t look a day over – well, certainly anything close to 50! “Really? Oh, too kind! But if that’s true, well, I’d say that’s down to just doing a job I love, and enjoying my time off, and not taking life too seriously. And I moisturise regularly! Like the song says: wear sunscreen!”

And as the sun sets on our chat, our conversation turns back to the place where Kris and I began: “I’m a very lucky man,” he says; “I really, really am.”

And we’re lucky that our long-standing relationship with Kris Marshall is set to strengthen in the most fortuitous way. Charlotte and Theodore, starring Kris Marshall and Eve Ponsonby at Ustinov Studio, 16 February–18 March;