The pandemic has seen many of us deal with intense relationships like never before, as we’ve bubbled with our relatives and looked out for friends. And actress Rachael Stirling is no different. In the past two years, she pivoted from working actor to carer for her mother, Dame Diana Rigg, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2020 as Covid began to spread. She died just six months later.
When Dame Diana joined her household bubble, Stirling was a relatively new mum, settling into family life with her husband, Guy Garvey, the lead singer and lyricist of the multi-award-winning band Elbow, and son Jack, then aged three.
It sounds like a time of mixed joy and sadness, worries about the pandemic balanced perhaps by the opportunity to be present for her much-loved mother when she was needed most.
And now that experience comes full circle as Stirling prepares to step back on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith in west London, where she was performing in 2020 when she first learned about her mother’s terminal illness. The play, Scandaltown, a cheeky modern Restoration comedy, is just what Stirling needs, she explains as we meet via Zoom from a book-lined room at their house in south-west London.
Barefaced and T-shirted like any busy mum on the run, she passes her hands over scraped-back dark hair as her thoughts tumble out in vivid phrases. “When I first found out that Mumma had got cancer,” says Stirling, “and I still had to go back on stage, I remember being there with this awful secret that I didn’t want to tell anyone and feeling that I already had one toe out of the show because I wanted to look after my mum.
“So, being back there now without Mumma is seismic. But it feels right to be doing something new, energetic, outrageous and on the happy side of ridiculous.”
Returning to such involved work will require a shake-up at home, too. Stirling became a mother at 39, exactly the same age as Rigg had been. (Her father, Archie Stirling, Laird of Keir, the Scottish theatre producer and former officer in the Scots Guards, supplied Stirling with two older half-brothers via a previous relationship.)
Older first-time parents get more tired, of course: she is now 44 and Guy is 48. They have a nanny, Shannon, who is about to give birth herself imminently. “She’s the most gorgeous, heavenly, heavily pregnant nanny,” says Stirling, “so that will mean Guy will be full-time Daddy Daycare soon.”
Stirling adds: “It’s so difficult, isn’t it? And it’s been a great panic because Guy needs to write for several hours a day otherwise he gets crotchety. I can see him getting frustrated – but he’s also come to terms with the fact that [his new] family is the source and fount of his most brilliant lyrics.” In the background, Guy is busy singing to Jack in the kitchen next door to encourage him to eat up his fish cakes.