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.
Their parenting seems mostly aligned, although Stirling suggests there is a discussion about social media looming. “Jack’s about to finish reception year and loves school, but he’s not allowed anywhere near a little screen of any kind,” she says. “I watched The Social Dilemma [the Netflix drama-documentary on the dangers of social media] the other day and have now decided, to Guy’s fury, that Jack is not going to be looking at a screen until he’s about 14. I’m terrified – I don’t believe in kiddie YouTube, which can’t be a good thing with those constant adverts.”
Are there signs of Jack following in his parents’ footsteps?
“He does show creativity – he’s constantly doing lots of little ‘shows’.”
Drama was always going to be Stirling’s destiny, given her famous mother. Although she has the wattage, the witty chutzpah and the slightly camp, husky drawl of Dame Diana, an appealing quality of vulnerability also marks out this two-times Olivier Award nominee on stage and screen after her television breakthrough in BBC2’s Sapphic-themed Tipping The Velvet in 2002.
But forging her own path as an actor with that formidable legacy presented challenges for Stirling. “When I was little and being identified as Mum’s daughter, I rejected it wholeheartedly.” She pretended that Rigg wasn’t her mum “because I didn’t want [my identity] to just be about that. It wasn’t as arrogant as it sounds: it was genuinely about wanting to learn [for myself] because I didn’t know anything. But I feel more confident now because I’ve been around quite a long time and have more experience.”
Her relationship with Garvey is clearly grounding too, despite their meeting, celebrity style, at her old friend Benedict Cumberbatch’s wedding in 2015.
So sure was Stirling of her new beau that she introduced him to her mother on their first date. And in the end, “Mumma was so glad to leave me in Guy’s safe hands,” she adds, noting, “They enjoyed a magical friendship.
“He had melted my heart already – and it took him a matter of a moment to melt Mother’s. There was a sweet moment through all my grieving for her when I suddenly realised – because grief can be a bit selfish sometimes – that this man had loved and lost her too. So I needed to let Guy grieve, too.”
It is with some pride that Stirling recalls her mother as being stoical throughout her illness, refusing morphine at first in order to retain her faculties, no doubt sustained by her strong faith as a practising Christian. Yet Stirling admits that Rigg “was a bit cross with God by the end. We managed to get rid of the pain, but if Mumma wasn’t working, wasn’t being useful – because she was a woman full of vitality – not being capable and effective was annoying to her.”
Stirling is now drawing on that energy herself to organise some appropriate memorials to her mother. There is talk of a possible plaque in Dame Diana’s memory backstage at Wyndham’s Theatre to add to the one that Stirling arranged for the Actors’ Church, St Paul’s in Covent Garden.
“She had said, as she was dying, that she didn’t want anything like that – she wanted to go off in a firework, in a puff of smoke. But I said, ‘What about the Actors’ Church?’ And she asked, ‘Oh, do you think they’ll have me,’ in her adorable, knowing-the-answer way.”
Stirling has no regrets about devoting herself to her mother at the end.
“It felt absolutely right to be her carer, because she was an incredibly loving Mumma to me – although our relationship could be difficult at times. But we came out of it in such a way that was transcendent of anything else that had happened.”
She goes on to clarify: “We loved each other so much and the relationship was really intense – but when I started to fly the nest we came a cropper because I was an only child. By going to university [Stirling read History of Art at Edinburgh], any sort of departure meant a sort of betrayal.
“It was something that needed to be unpicked, in my case through therapy, because it was so complicated. But we went through the whole gamut – the encyclopaedia of mother and daughter from A to Z – to a happy ending. We came out with flying colours, a Double First in mother-and-daughter relationships.”
Scandaltown opens at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, West London, on Thursday 14 April and runs to 14 May. To book tickets, email: firstname.lastname@example.org