The fifth in a series of stage door encounters with favorite actors.
When I flew to London in October 2002, I really didn’t have any plans. My job had just been sacrificed on the altar of “corporate restructuring” (“We don’t have any hours for you, and we don’t know if we ever will”) so a trip to my favorite city seemed like a good way to re-group. On the flight over, I watched a little film called The Abduction Club. It was a cute movie, set in Georgian Ireland, about younger sons of the aristocracy who wouldn’t inherit anything, so they had to join the military or become clergymen. They formed a club to abduct beautiful wealthy girls in order to charm them into marriage. It sounds rather nasty, but the movie was actually funny and sweet. One of the leads was Matthew Rhys, but I knew him only as my favorite actor’s best friend. I’d been obsessed with Ioan Gruffudd since the first series of Horatio Hornblower, so I’d seen photographs of Rhys and was somewhat aware of his stage career. Rhys had recently starred in the West End’s stage version of The Graduate. Now that I’d finally seen one of his films, I wanted to see more.
Once I arrived in London, I picked up Time Out to read that Matthew Rhys’ play at the National Theatre had just closed! I was so disappointed. Then I read that the play was on tour at regional theatres around Britain. If I was willing to take a train to Bolton, outside Manchester, I could catch the play at the Octagon Theatre. I booked a train, a Bed & Breakfast, and tickets to two performances of The Associate. I had a nice chat with the box office on the phone, telling them that I was coming just to see Rhys. When I arrived at the theatre to pick up my tickets, the staff told me that everyone was talking about me, including Rhys himself. The box office had spread the word that someone had traveled all the way from San Francisco to see the play. It was a bit of an exaggeration, of course. Then I was told that Rhys hoped that I would join him in the theatre’s pub after the performance. Wow.
The Associate, by Simon Bent, is a three-man play about two house painters who discover that the pensioner they’re working for is a mad serial bomber. They attempt to blackmail the old fellow instead of rushing off to the police. It becomes a battle of wits, for which the house painters are poorly equipped. Rhys’ character is especially dim. I think it’s a real challenge for an intelligent person to successfully play a dull-witted fellow. Rhys was very convincing! The other two actors were Nicolas Tennant as the second painter and John Normington as the bomber, both excellent in their roles. The Octagon Theatre is very small and intimate, so the audience is practically onstage with the actors.
After the play, I waited in the lobby a little while, not wanting to appear too eager. Then I headed upstairs to the pub that’s part of the theatre complex, where the three actors were already seated with drinks. I walked up and said hello. Rhys was gracious and completely at ease, greeting me warmly and introducing me to Tennant and Normington. He insisted on buying me a drink, so I ordered a coke, since alcohol just makes me drowsy and stupid. After everybody signed my program, I sat with them while they relaxed and talked. I didn’t have anything interesting to contribute to the conversation, so I just sat there, both nervous and thrilled. How do I describe Rhys? Some people have an air of confidence that just makes you want to be around them. I think it’s that intangible trait that we call “cool.” Matthew Rhys is cool. He never made me feel anything but cool, too, and I am hardly that. He also has a lovely Welsh accent that rarely gets heard in his various acting roles. So, after our drinks, Rhys and Tennant walked me to the front of the theatre and waited with me until my taxi arrived.
I had a ticket to see the play again the following evening, which was the last performance in Bolton. I went to the stage door after the matinee to ask for Rhys. He came out with an envelope in his hand, saying it was a surprise for me. It was an autographed postcard of his head shot. I gave him a little bag of goodies, then pulled out my camera and asked if I could take some photos. He let me take an entire roll of film before going off to meet a friend for dinner. I took my film to a 1 hour photo lab, of course. That evening I saw the play again, catching subtleties I’d missed the first time. I went to the pub afterward, and Rhys came in a few minutes later, apologetic that he couldn’t hang out. Since it was closing night in Bolton, everybody had to help pack up for the move to the next city. We said good-bye, and then he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect fan encounter. I went home from that trip with good memories and several movies starring Rhys, and I’ve continued to follow his career. When Brothers & Sisters began in 2006, I watched it for the first two seasons because of him. (Rhys plays gay lawyer Kevin.) I have to confess, I stopped watching regularly after that. I didn’t realize until later that I’d seen Nicolas Tennant in Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs in 1999. If I’d read my program at the theatre, it would have given me something to talk about at the pub! John Normington died in 2007 after appearing in Atonement, which starred another Stage Door favorite. It’s a small world when it comes to British actors. The proof? A few years ago, Ioan Gruffudd married Alice Evans, one of Matthew Rhys’ co-stars in The Abduction Club.
Note: Another version of this story appears at www.matthew-rhys.net, a wonderful fansite with great photos and up-to-date information.