Between location shooting in South Africa and vintage japes in the theatre, Stephen Tompkinson has found the ideal work-life balance, finds Terry Grimley.
Stephen Tompkinson's television profile has been high over the last few weeks with the second series of Wild at Heart running on prime-time ITV on Sunday nights.
But while the adventures of a vet and his family in South Africa have been playing in the nation's living rooms, Tompkinson himself has been running around its theatres in a frock.
He is playing the title role (well, strictly not the title role, but an imposter disguised as the title character) in Brandon Thomas's 1892 comedy Charley's Aunt, the earliest British farce to retain a place in the repertoire.
It comes to the Malvern Festival Theatre, where he was last seen in 2004 in Charles Dyer's 1960s comedy The Rattle of a Simple Man, next week.
"This is week five of us performing." he says. "It's working an absolute treat. But then it's been working since 1892, so we would only have ourselves to blame if we started messing it up.
"Now we've got it up to speed with audiences' reactions and they're an integral part of it. They were the missing element all the way through rehearsals. This is the grand-daddy of all British farces. It's surprising how well this play endures, and you can't put your finger on why it's so funny.
"Most people who asked me what I was doing, when I told them they knew the catchphrase, 'where the nuts come from', but very few people had seen it. So it's good timing for this."
Set in the leisured world of late Victorian Oxford undergraduates, it hinges on a plot to access the company of certain chaperoned young ladies by impersonating the previously unglimpsed Brazilian aunt of one of the young men. The arrival of the real aunt helps precipitate an escalating series of comic scrapes around the notion of a man in drag.
"It's so tightly-constructed that the audience are let in on the secret early on and it becomes a shared experience," says Tompkinson. "There's so much business in there that's written in the stage directions."
The production is directed by Mel Smith, just over 20 years after he directed an acclaimed revival starring Griff Rhys Jones. Tompkinson reminds me that Rhys Jones contracted hepatitis during the run and Smith was forced to don the frock and go on in his place.
The production updates the play by a few years, to lift it out of Victorian gloom.
"Just to lighten it we've made it a bit Edwardian, but only in terms of the setting and costumes. Charley's aunt is supposed to be a widow, and it helps that because the head of state was in mourning at the time, when people are told this is a grieving widow from Brazil, she is treated with a lot of respect and isn't under so much scrutiny."
Tompkinson has been one of Britain's busiest screen actors since he stepped into Drop the Dead Donkey almost straight out of drama school. So is theatre something he has been catching up with between screen jobs?
"All my training at drama school was for theatre and it's something you hanker after. There's that feeling with TV and film of being in another world with lighting and sound, and you can stop and go again. There's much more a feeling of freedom from being in a play for two-and-a-half hours and working with other actors. It's a unique experience and different every night.
"And then you go to different parts of the country and see how audience reactions change from area to area. It's ideal for a farce.
"But I'm delighted to say that after I finish this at the end of April we go back to South Africa at the beginning of June to make the third series of Wild at Heart. It takes six months and we have a great time. It's a wonderful pleasure to be able to go and see those incredible animals at close quarters."
Charley's Aunt is at Malvern Festival Theatre from Monday to Saturday next week (Box office: 01684 892277).