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Sian Brooke: The beauty of changing places

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Sian Brooke has had a busy year. Her latest role in Neil LaBute’s play Reasons To Be Pretty, the third in a trilogy about society’s obsession with physical appearance, follows directly on from her performance in Stephen Poliakoff’s My City but, Matt Trueman finds, variety is both her strength and her motivating factor and she is unfazed by the stresses of her schedule

Just over a month ago, Sian Brooke was dividing her days between the American Midwest and London. All without leaving the Almeida Theatre in Islington, where she was rehearsing for Neil LaBute’s latest play by day and playing in Stephen Poliakoff’s My City by night. “I might as well have a camp bed at the Almeida,” she joked back then.

Actually, the 32-year-old actress was so enthusiastic about the building that I wondered whether she might seriously have accepted had such an offer been made. “The way that Michael [Attenborough] runs it, it just feels totally welcoming. He’s very caring about actors and it’s a place where you’re nurtured and supported in what you need.”

Leaving aside the pressures of saying the right thing in an interview situation, enthusiasm is Brooke’s default mode. In the 45 minutes we spend talking, she doesn’t offer a single bum note. Even the stresses of her current schedule are delivered with upbeat inflections and a chuckle: “I don’t know who I am. I get home at night and I’m like, ‘Where am I? Who am I?'”

That giddiness makes you think that Sian Phillips, the teenager from Lichfield in Staffordshire, passionate about performing, is still very much present and pinching herself in disbelief – an impression enhanced by her bright yellow jumper from which stares a Dalmatian with its tongue out.

She changed her name for obvious reasons. Brooke, after an army general from Lichfield, being a result of her Dad visiting the National Portrait Gallery to draw up a list of possible replacements. Like many actors, she talks about performance as a drug she discovered – “by 13, I was completely hooked” – but with Brooke you suspect it’s more felt than most. She is still completely in its throngs.

But after the year she’s had, it’s little wonder that she’s light-headed about things. In addition to the Almeida-Poliakoff-Attenborough-LaBute combo, she’s worked at the Royal Court, Gate, Hampstead and Duchess theatres, even managing to squeeze in an episode of the BBC courtroom drama Silk to boot. In fact, there has barely been a moment to reflect: “It’s been an amazing year. I’m only looking back on it now, but it’s been one of the best I’ve had.”

It’s the sort of year that marks a level up for an actor’s career, what with the way that work tends to breed work, providing the opportunity to be seen regularly by casting directors and other industry professionals.

The centrepiece was Ecstasy, the much-lauded revival of Mike Leigh’s 1979 play that ran for six weeks in the West End after an initial run at the Hampstead Theatre. Brooke played the doleful Jean with a devastating restraint, sinking into unnoticed silences and dissociating into a headful of worries.

Leigh’s process being as notoriously meticulous as it is, she admits to initial nerves. “I’d wanted to work with Mike for years. You’ve got all these hopes, but it surpassed everything that I thought it would be.

“You really get to know the character. You create their whole world and that really helps to keep it fresh every night. You’ve got everything you could ever need. It’s sort of like a rucksack of stuff that you can keep pulling things out of to maintain it through the run.”

If Leigh was all about detail and preparation, Poliakoff proved much more hands-on, but his “very English style of writing” stands in marked contrast to LaBute’s “powerhouse, American, hit-you-in-the-face, wham-bam” style. What they have in common, she says, is a drive that shines through, not just in their work, but in their whole personalities. Otherwise, they couldn’t be more different. Although she’s perfectly diplomatic, Brooke displays particular relish for LaBute’s writing: “It’s so naturalistic it can’t but resonate. You think, ‘Ooh, I’ve heard an argument like that’. The way that Neil writes rhythm is quite enticing and he’s not afraid to flag up the unattractive side of people.”

Reasons to be Pretty, the final of LaBute’s trilogy on the subject of appearance, centres on an offhand, but impolitic, comment made by Greg (Tom Burke, with whom Brooke was at RADA) about his girlfriend Steph. It’s not the worst thing he could have said, but it stings nonetheless and sparks a chain reaction that pulls each character out of their set ways. “I think its really going to test people’s responses,” she says, “Neil’s work is like that. It really challenges people.”

Brooke plays Steph, the subject of that flippant remark. “She’s fiery and you hit the ground running when you meet her. Beneath that, though, she makes brave choices.” A world away from Julie in My City: “a working-class, north London girl.”

This variety is both Brooke’s strength and her motivating factor. Not for her the same role trotted out under a different name. She has jumped from Juliet with the RSC to the red shoes of Dorothy; from Richard Bean’s Yorkshire farm lass Laura, who ages from 18 to 84 over the course of Harvest, to Lulu in The Birthday Party anniversary production.

“I’ve always wanted to avoid being pigeonholed, to play parts you wouldn’t necessarily expect. For me, the whole notion of acting is becoming somebody else. You’re always stretching yourself, trying to appear different in each play you do.”

This is, then, the joy not only of Brooke’s year, but of what was her most recent situation, dashing back and forth across the Atlantic at the Almeida. It’s a challenge she clearly savoured: “Julie and Steph are extremes and us actors, we love playing extremes.”

* Reasons to be Pretty is on at the Almeida until January 14, 2012

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