'You don't want to be the only dad in the playground who's too old to pick up your kid'
Stephen Mangan looks pretty relaxed, given the demands on his time. "I've got a young family, I'm trying to have an acting career, run a production company and write a series," boggles the 49-year-old star of Adrian Mole, Green Wing and Episodes. "Sometimes I think I should just be in a pub in Soho, telling stories in my booming theatrical voice."
The TV show he is writing, Hang Ups, is one of four series he has coming out in 2018, and the family comprises boys aged 10, seven and one with his wife, actress Louise Delamere, who is also his partner in their new company, Slam Films.
On top of all this, Mangan has signed away "six nights of the week, the time you put the kids to bed, for a quarter of the year" to director Ian Rickson's major West End revival of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, alongside Zoe Wanamaker, Toby Jones and Pearl 'Doctor Who' Mackie. The play, in which two strangers (Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) menace an apparent nonentity (Jones) slumming it in a dowdy seaside boarding house, was Pinter's first full-length work and famously closed eight performances into its London run in 1958.
Mangan has a theory about the air of mystery and menace in what has become a modern classic. "Pinter was acting in weekly rep when he wrote it, where you have three plays on the go: performing one, rehearsing next week's, and learning one for two weeks' time," the actor says. "As David Baron (Pinter's stage name) he played a lot of policemen and detectives in plays where everything was summed up in the denouement. You can see him thinking, 'Why is everything bloody explained?'
"He was incredibly frustrated at that point, didn't feel he was making any headway, living in grimy digs, and spewing out The Birthday Party whenever he had a moment. It feels as if it comes from somewhere deep within him, like a dream he put down on paper. It's mysterious and baffling and unsettling. Which is why it must have felt so threatening and weird at the time, and why it got such bad reviews and closed so early. But you get echoes in it of stuff that we now take for granted, stuff that Tarantino and playwrights like Jez Butterworth have done - the conversational double-play but also the banality of people waiting."
Although he's made a name on TV and in British films, mostly in comic roles, Mangan did five solid years of classical theatre after leaving Rada and returns to the theatre roughly every two years.
His last play was Rules for Living at the National; before that he was the perfect Wodehousian twit in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense; and in 2008 he was superb in the Old Vic's masterful revival of Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, which took him to New York and earned him a Tony nomination.
"I have an itchy brain," Mangan says. "Plays are fun, because each night is an event. Seven hundred people come into a room and they are all expecting something. It's thrilling."
The Birthday Party is dark, but Mangan says it is also funny. "Rich material will touch people in all sorts of ways. Hamlet's a very funny play. There are great funny moments in King Lear. The Norman Conquests is a comedy full of aching sadness."
He seems at ease being known for comedy. "I obviously have quite a funny face. And I don't help my case by doing things like panel shows and hosting Have I Got News For You. Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't do that." Is there an element of the clown who wants to play Hamlet? "I am hungry for all roles," he says suavely. "But there are parts I am now too old for - I would have loved to play Konstantin in The Seagull."
He claims not to mind about his approaching 50th birthday. "I'm as fit as ever," he says. "You have to be because you don't want to be the only dad in the playground who's too old to pick up your kid. And because Louise and I have such a young family we don't feel as old as we should."
Delamere has a steady TV career, most notably in medical dramas No Angels, Casualty and Holby City, and she acted alongside Mangan in the period lark Houdini and Doyle (they dismissed the idea that one of their sons should also appear as "too weird"). But founding a production company was an acknowledgment that "at some point the roles will be thinner on the ground, and I like to keep moving".
The company doesn't exist just to develop projects for him and Delamere to star in, but he has already enjoyed being "further upstream than usual" on the creative process on Hang Ups, which he co-wrote with Louise's brother, the director Robert Delamere.
Based on a web series starring Lisa Kudrow that later moved to Showtime, it stars Mangan as an online psychiatrist. Since most of the action consists of Skype conversations, without lengthy camera set-ups and lighting changes, he was able to indulge his passion for improvisation, and also invite a roster of impressive co-stars to take part. "Richard E Grant plays my therapist. He's in every episode but we shot all his scenes in one morning. My parents are Charles Dance and Celia Imrie, my sister is Jessica Hynes, Katherine Parkinson is my wife …"
He's not exactly short on work or talented collaborators in the packed year ahead. In Abi Morgan's drama The Split he plays a barrister alongside the fabulous Nicola Walker. In Bliss, created by the Arrested Development star David Cross, he co-stars with Heather Graham and Jo Hartley as "a man who through weak niceness has somehow ended up with two families who don't know about each other, and 16 years on he keeps putting off telling them the devastating truth".
Then there's the final series of Episodes, in which he and Tamsin Greig play married writer-producers embroiled in an awful American remake of their British hit show featuring a wonderfully self-parodying Matt LeBlanc. During its seven-year run, Mangan's American agent pressured him to move to Los Angeles.
"But I was always wary of LA," he says. "There is such an onus on looks and I don't feel I have film star looks to offer. I always wanted to work in New York and am glad I had a chance to, but I think London is the best city in the world. One of the reasons I have stayed here is you can do theatre, radio drama, TV, film, voiceover work, readings, panel shows… and I like to do everything."
Mangan was born in London to working-class, first-generation Irish immigrant parents, who built up a successful building company together. He won scholarships to independent schools but after his law degree at Cambridge, where he had a theatrical circle of friends including Rachel Weisz and Olivia Williams, he spent a year nursing his mother while she was dying of colon cancer.
"She was 45, her mum died at 47, so that was a very visceral reminder that I might not have long," he says. "It gave me the impetus and courage I needed to do what I really wanted to do." So he applied to Rada.
His father saw his son become a success but was diagnosed with the brain tumour that killed him at 63 when Mangan was midway through playing the deliciously awful anaesthetist Guy Secretan in Green Wing.
A real anaesthetist actually gave him a thumbs-up while they were discussing his father having brain surgery. But Mangan says he is grateful to have created memorable characters - strangers still shout "Dan" at him "on an almost daily basis" thanks to one appearance on Alan Partridge - and that losing both parents early made him and his sisters, Anita and Lisa, even closer.
I've met Mangan several times and he is always a pleasure to talk to and a surprise. He used to cycle to keep fit but now says he's taken up running. "And I think I'm going to do the marathon, just after The Birthday Party ends," he adds blithely. As he says, he likes to keep moving.
The Birthday Party is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London (0844 871 7627, atgtickets.com), Jan 9 to April 14
He has four TV series due to run in 2018 plus a stage role in role in a revival of The Birthday Party, Stephen Mangan tells Nick Curtis how his young family is an incentive to stay fit as he turns 50 and of the impact of losing his mum at a young age