As he hits the stage in Constellations, Tovey talks babies, self-loathing and why he finally understands The History Boys

Russell Tovey is trying to lick his elbow. It’s a ritual every performer has to go through in the opening scene of Nick Payne’s play Constellations – the response to a flirtily issued challenge from a stranger – but it seems particularly suited to someone whose physical presence combines goofiness and sex appeal in equal measure. The resulting ripple of laughter in a packed house feels mildly alarming after months of social distancing, but for Tovey it’s a reassuring sign of a return to normal. “It hasn’t felt as alien as I thought it was gonna be,” he says, adding that gaps between seats could feel “like you’re playing to a show that hasn’t sold that well”. Judging by the queues outside, there’s little danger of that.

We meet the next day at the bottom of a lightwell in the middle of a rehearsal studio in Covent Garden. It’s technically outside, which is better for Covid, the PR assures us – a reminder that normal is, in fact, some way away. Tovey is dressed in grey chinos and a darker sweater that chime with his now more-salt-than-pepper hair. The erstwhile History Boy is turning 40 in November (he played sixth-former Rudge in the Alan Bennett hit at the age of 23), though he still somehow manages to look younger than his years. The run-up to this milestone obviously hasn’t panned out as expected. In 2020 he was supposed to be on Broadway, performing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? alongside Rupert Everett, and, as he told one interviewer, “putting the feelers out” on how to have a baby.

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