The panic and passion of Stephanie Cole

STEPHANIE Cole collects relations. She discovered her twin cousins when she was 11, her father when she was 21 and her half-sister when she was 38. As if this weren't extraordinary enough, she was also expelled from school for throwing a book at her Latin teacher, once suffered so badly from agoraphobia she couldn't walk to the shops, and became a Buddhist. We meet in her north London flat. Stephanie, tall with a massive jaw, piercing blue eyes and stern headmistress's face and clothes, spits out her gum, makes a cup of instant coffee with dried skimmed milk, shoos away her cats and talks in a deep, self-assured, direct voice. She is an intense, likeably formidable and surprisingly unsmiling woman.

Stephanie is 53. In her latest role as Betty, in A Passionate Woman, she plays a 52-year-old who, before her son's wedding, reflects on her own marriage and impending old age, and sees a wasted life. ‘I empathise with her,' says Stephanie. ‘I've sometimes taken stock and lost confidence.' Stephanie recalls her life. Her parents, wartime lovers, parted before she was born. She was brought up by her impecunious middle-class mother and great-aunt, and sent, aged five, to boarding school.

When Stephanie was 11, her mother located Stephanie's twin cousins in a bleak children's home in Wales and adopted them. ‘The home was horrific,' she recalls, ‘a couple of bare rooms with a lot of tiny children sitting around.'

Stephanie, aged 15, was expelled from Clifton High School for Girls. ‘For constant insubordination. The Latin mistress laughed when I said I wanted to be an actress. So I picked up a Latin dictionary and threw it at her. Sadly I missed.' She left school, learned shorthand, and went to Bristol Old Vic drama school.

Aged 21, she decided to meet her father for the first time. ‘We corresponded then met outside the stage door, hugged, then he said, ‘Shall we have lunch?'. I was painfully shy and he was very private. But he told me I had a half-sister.' She thinks she might have seen him again. Curiously, she doesn't remember.

Stephanie married Henry Marshall, a writer and theatrical fight director, in 1973. She became pregnant quickly, lost the baby at five months, then became pregnant again with Emma (now a 21-year-old stage manager). ‘I stopped working and had terrible post-natal depression. I got awful panic attacks, agoraphobia and claustrophobia. The agoraphobia got so bad I couldn't even go to Sainsbury's - just the local shop because I could rush home. If I went to the theatre, I had to sit at the end of the row so I could get out. The panic attacks were horrendous. Your heart goes very fast, you stop being able to breathe and you get terribly dizzy and sometimes lose consciousness.' The doctor prescribed valium. Stephanie learned auto hypnosis.

Then when she was 38, her adopted brother Peter, 28, was diagnosed as schizophrenic. ‘His behaviour had always been appalling. He'd destroy all his possessions, neglect himself, become withdrawn, and would think the television was talking to him,' says Stephanie, who is patron of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship.

Stephanie felt spiritually empty and became a Buddhist. After five years she returned to her Christian roots, often going to Quaker meetings. On her mantelpiece she has two Hindu gods, a buddha, Christ and native Indian religious artefacts.

IN 1982, an axe handle was dropped accidentally on her head during a performance of the farce Noises Off. Consequently, she suffers from tinnitus, a constant ringing in her ears.

Then six years ago Stephanie's marriage broke down. ‘We'd been arguing constantly and had grown further and further apart.'

Her difficulties were helped by being in analysis. Finally she spent seven years on the couch. ‘I thought the breakdown was all my fault,' she says. ‘I came to realise it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. I explored my lovely side and the areas where I'm vulnerable, stupid, unpleasant and malicious.'

Things looked up in 1989, when Stephanie traced her half-sister through Ariel Bruce, who specialises in finding people. ‘I rang her when she was going through the dustbin. Ariel had told her I was an actress - and my sister had been to the theatre the night before and was scavenging for the programme, just in case.' The siblings met at Gatwick airport, laughed, cried, compared life stories, realised how alike they were and became friends. ‘She lives in the States now and we talk once a week.' Before I go, Stephanie tells me one last story. About how she set off four years ago on a mercy mission to Romania, co-driving a lorry of medical supplies. ‘The big end went, the clutch went and then the gearbox went. We were stranded and had to fly home.' The tale is typical.