Last weekend, Katie Brayben revisited the scene of her 2015 Olivier triumph, performing in the 40th-anniversary ceremony at the Royal Opera House some months after she’d already left Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, the show in which her performance as the singer-songwriter had won her the award for best actress in a musical.
And next week she starts performances in her first stage role since Beautiful, starring alongside veteran actor Maureen Lipman in a 25th-anniversary revival of Charlotte Keatley’s celebrated play My Mother Said I Never Should, revolving around four generations of women. In it, she plays Lipman’s granddaughter, and her character has her own daughter.
Her own career has resisted easy categorisations; she has swapped freely between musical theatre roles and straight acting jobs ever since graduating from Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. “I try not to worry about expectation or anything like that – it’s so negative,” the bubbly but thoughtful Brayben tells me as we drink coffee in the cafe at Jerwood Space before she begins that day’s rehearsals for the play. “If I can do something and it’s right for me, I will. It is as much about what you want to do as it is about the way the industry sees you and puts you in a box. If you really want to do certain projects, then you have to make that known.”
In the past few years, she’s done Alan Ayckbourn and Shakespeare, new plays in London at the National Theatre, Bush Theatre and Almeida, and musicals in the West End, at the Almeida and in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. If the Olivier win threatened to put her in a box, she’s quickly cast it aside to do this enduringly popular feminist play. “I didn’t know it at all, but I read it and found it to be an extraordinary play. Charlotte is the king of subtext and miscommunication, which happens so often in families. Anyone can relate to that.”
But it is also quite rare, still, for plays to have roles for four women. “Charlotte wrote it 25 years ago, and there have still not been many follow-up plays with roles like these.” We talk about the increasing trend for women to take parts usually assigned to male actors in Shakespeare – there’s going to be a female Henry V in Regent’s Park this summer, for example – and Brayben says: “It’s wonderful that people are being more open to people playing different genders in plays – Shakespeare is dead so we don’t have to ask him for permission, but we need to have more of those conversations. If a part can be played by a woman and there’s an interesting way to tell the story that way, it’s wonderful.”
Q&A: Katie Brayben
What was your first non-theatre job? Working in the home furnishings department at Laura Ashley in Catford when I was about 16.
What was your first professional theatre job? A show called Time Warp, featuring songs from rock musicals, for a number two tour.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t panic – and being out of work is part of the job.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I’m doing a play called My Mother Said I Never Should, but mine did – my parents are blues performers Fran McGillivray and Mike Burke, and they’re my biggest influences.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t do what I do, which is think of the many reasons I shouldn’t get a job; think of the reasons you should.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I’d do what I do as well as act – I’d be a songwriter.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I don’t say the name of ‘the Scottish play’.
She did two shows in succession at the Almeida, before doing Beautiful, that each had very interesting ways of telling their stories. Bret Easton Ellis’ brutal 1991 novel about a serial killer, American Psycho, was recast as a musical that she appeared in at the Almeida with a cast led by Matt Smith (Doctor Who) in the title role of Patrick Bateman. “We had a fantastic, vibrant and talented cast – they were wonderful to work with.” That show is now Broadway-bound, with Rupert Goold directing a new American company in it, but she missed out on the Broadway transfer of her next Almeida show King Charles III because, by then, she was starring in Beautiful. “I wouldn’t have not done Beautiful, but part of me was sad that I didn’t get to. It felt like not going on a school trip with my mates.”
In King Charles III, she played Diana, the Princess of Wales. “It’s really interesting – some people would say to me that she came across as hilarious in the play, but others said it was very scary and Machiavellian how she came in and stirred things up. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t do it as a caricature. She was the people’s princess, and people have a relationship with her that is so strong. I was very aware of that and the huge responsibility of playing her. I did a lot of research, but there’s only so much you can do, as you still never know what their private voice is like. The private voice has to come from the play.”
Leading on as it did to Beautiful, she’s had an amazing run of roles – “I’ve been so lucky in terms of projects I’ve got to work on” – but she went after Beautiful with particular determination. “I always go to auditions giving myself lots of reasons why I should not get the job, but with this one, I had no excuse: I felt I could sing it, I’m a songwriter myself, I’d grown up with Carole King and my parents are musicians, too – there were so many positives on my side, I just had to go in there and show them what I could do.”
Katie Brayben’s top tips for aspiring actors
• Read the newspaper – get to know what is going on around you, and get involved in things you are passionate about, not just acting but also politically.
• Go and see as much theatre as you possibly can, and more than once.
• You have to be athletic in terms of your approach to appearing in musicals – you need to stay healthy and emotionally healthy, as well.
She was signed up for the show for 11 months, including rehearsals. “I absolutely loved every second of it, but was kind of exhausted by the end of it. I could have stayed, but it was an easy decision to leave: I felt, creatively, I needed to move on. I love variety and different projects. And I didn’t want to get to the point where I wasn’t giving audiences 100%.”
So she effectively made herself unemployed: “But you always do in this business. All jobs are contractual, and when you realise that there will always be times when you are out of work, it gets easier. Ask any actor – it’s normal. But it’s also normal for actors to always fear that they will never work again – you just mustn’t give yourself a hard time about it.”
How does she keep herself busy between jobs? “I write my own music, so I gig and try to stay creative. After I finished Beautiful, I needed a break, so I went away on holiday and did some lovely things; and then I started auditioning again, and that means a lot of learning and self-motivation, so you’re constantly working, even when you’re not working.”
She’s come a long way since she took over the role of Sophie, the young ingenue in Mamma Mia!, during that show’s 10th-anniversary year, to make her West End debut. “I was very young at the time and felt a lot of pressure. But I learned so much about musicals and how to look after yourself and sustain eight shows a week from doing it. I also learned that it’s much harder to take a role over when it’s already been done. I love being at the genesis of a show and getting to create it from scratch. You can use your own instincts.”
CV: Katie Brayben
Born: Lewisham, year undisclosed
Training: Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance
Landmark productions: American Psycho, Almeida Theatre (2013), King Charles III, Almeida Theatre (2014), Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (2015)
Awards: Olivier award for best actress in a musical for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (2015)
Agent: Theresa Hickey, CDA
The Stage has four pairs of tickets to see My Mother Said I Never Should up for grabs – enter here