Waiting to chat to Nigel Havers, Stephen Tompkinson and Denis Lawson as they rehearse for their show ART, I overhear a waitress detailing the ingredients of the soup of the day.

It occurs to me that the producers of Yasmina Reza’s award winning play, which comes to the Oxford Playhouse next Monday to Saturday, might have had a similar approach: Take one of the most successful comedies of all time; cast three of our best-loved and most experienced stars and mix well with a talented director. Garnish with marketing and serve at some of the UK’s finest theatres. Voilà! One smash-hit. With a clutch of heavyweight credits between them, all three actors agree that ART is the theatrical equivalent of white truffles.

“First of all it’s very short. I’m very keen on short theatre,” twinkles Nigel, famous for roles in hit movies such as Chariots of Fire and A Passage to India and a plethora of primetime television shows including The Charmer, Coronation Street and Downton Abbey.

The Oxford Times:

Returning to ART with relish having done previous stints in the play (“740 performances, but not for a few years”) the dapper Mr Havers first saw the play at a preview at the Wyndham’s Theatre when it first opened. “As yet I have not found a better modern play,” he says. “It’s intellectual, witty and about things I understand, like friendship and art. For me it’s an absolute godsend.”

Stephen (DCI Banks, Trollied, Wild at Heart, Drop the Dead Donkey and Ballykissangel) nods in agreement. “I also saw the first night at Wyndham’s and it was an incredible night. When I was offered the role of Ivan later in the run I jumped at it. Yasmina Reza has beautifully observed this male friendship and it is constantly amusing. I haven’t done the play for 18 years but it is lovely to come back to.”

He may not have been in the play before, but Denis (Bleak House, New Tricks and Star Wars) is nevertheless delighting in learning his lines. “I had seen it but had never read it and it is such a pleasure to dig into. The comedy is just wonderful,” he sighs.

Winner of just about every prestigious theatre award going, ART tells the story of Serge, a divorced doctor who buys an abstract painting. Serge’s friend Marc is outraged that anyone would pay such a vast sum of money for a completely white canvas and dismisses it as tosh. Mutual friend Yvan tries to reconcile the pair, but before long finds himself in the line of fire. Laugh-out-loud funny, it is undoubtedly the exploration of friendship within the sparkling writing that gives ART truly universal appeal, so what, I ask, are the qualities Nigel, Stephen and Denis appreciate in their friends?

“Tolerance and malleability,” quips Stephen.

Denis ponders. With a mix of pride and affection, he eventually responds: “I still have friends from school. We see each other regularly and it is a wonderful thing to have friendships with people you have known since you were 11 or 12. We all have very different lives but our friendship is very easy. That’s special and I really value it.”

On tour the trio become their own family. How do they amuse themselves when they’re not performing?

The Oxford Times:

“You arrive on Monday, so that’s taken care of, Tuesday usually includes some sort of publicity for the play, Wednesday is probably a matinee, Thursday you might visit a gallery, Friday you sleep in and then on Saturday you go home,” offers Nigel, explaining that even living out of a suitcase and being somewhere different every week has its own rhythm.

“I’ve not toured for a while but if there’s one of those hop-on-hop-off buses then I’ll be on it,” admits Stephen. “You learn all sorts and they’re very good for finding your bearings,” he insists.

It is 20 years since David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers first produced ART in the West End.

“It doesn’t date; it still feels fresh,” says Denis.

“You’ll love it,” urges Stephen. “It’s not just a play about three men because it’s from a woman’s point of view.”

Finishing his espresso, Nigel adds: “And because it’s short you’ll be in the pub afterwards in time to order food!”

  • ART is at the Oxford Playhouse from Monday to next Saturday.
  • Tickets from oxfordplayhouse.com