When Stephen Fry made his troubled exit from a West End production in 1995, leaving anger and recriminations in his wake, the actor feared he would never tread the boards again.
Now, in a remarkable career turnaround 17 years on, Fry has been named the best supporting actor in a play at the Whatsonstage.com awards, hailed for his comeback performance as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
The actor and television personality said he was “simply astonished” to receive the award, which is voted for by audiences. “ Seventeen years ago I left this country in disgrace having run out of a play and I thought I might never return to the stage again,” he said.
He was not exaggerating. Fry was starring opposite Rik Mayall in Cell Mates, a play about the KGB spy George Blake and the petty criminal Sean Bourke who helped him break out of prison, when he walked out on the production following a particularly excoriating review in the Financial Times.
The self-confessed bipolar sufferer has since admitted that he contemplated suicide after fleeing to Bruges. His departure caused problems for his abandoned colleagues too, causing audiences to dwindle so badly that the play closed just six weeks after opening night. “He has got a lot to answer for,” producer Duncan Weldon said at the time.
Fry would describe it as “my little wobble”, but the playwright, Simon Gray, was more brutal, accusing the comedian of behaving in a “most cowardly fashion”. In Gray’s subsequent diary of the production, Fat Chance, he was highly critical of Fry.
There have been no such wobbles with Twelfth Night. The Independent critic Paul Taylor called Fry’s Malvolio an “intelligent, generous performance – almost studiedly not a star turn”.
The industry newspaper The Stage described Fry’s performance as “memorable and heartfelt”, adding: “He manages to convey a deep sense of pathos beneath the pompous absurdity of the most famous character ever to sport yellow stockings and cross garters on the English stage.”
Thanking the production’s director, Tim Carroll, and producer, Sonia Friedman, as well as the audiences and Shakespeare himself, Fry said: “I have been back onstage in a wonderful play and had the privilege of playing with one of the best casts that has ever been assembled.”
Fry’s award for the all-male production, which stars Mark Rylance as Olivia, marked one of three for the Globe’s production last night. Sweeney Todd won five Whatsonstage.com awards including best musical revival, as well as best actor and actress in a musical for Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.
Best actor was awarded to Rupert Everett, while Sheridan Smith won best actress for Hedda Gabler. Will Young’s performance in Cabaret saw him pick up newcomer of the year award, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won best new play. Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was handed the theatre event of the year. Over 60,000 took part in voting for the awards.