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Interview with Katie Brayben

5 April 2016 | Lydia Cooper

The Olivier Award-winning actress Katie Brayben is about to appear in Charlotte Keatley’s play My Mother Said I Never Should at the St James’ Theatre. Between her rehearsals before the opening, we chatted about strong women, live music and the Southbank.

London Calling: Can you tell us a bit about your new play My Mother Said I Never Should, in which you’ll be playing Jackie?

Katie Brayben: The show is about four generations of the same family, and the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. It explores those relationships, and the undertones and subtext of what is and isn’t said. I play Jackie, the daughter of Margaret growing up in the sixties and seventies, and it’s also about women growing up over the course of the twentieth century, and how expectations changed in the period. It’s one of those plays where so much happens that it’s hard to encapsulate in a few sentences!

LC: How have rehearsals been going? What’s it been like playing children and working with the other women?

KB: I've just been doing a movement session on the child scenes actually, as part of a workshop for the play. In certain scenes, all the actors are children, and it’s fascinating because you remember all those power games you play as a kid, how kids can be quite mean and cruel. And working with the other three women is amazing too, they’re incredible. We’re only in our second week of rehearsals, so last week we did a lot around the table. The playwright Charlotte Keatley was actually present for some of these discussions, which was fantastic, as we could ask her about her interpretation of the text.

LC: What did you discuss with Charlotte?

KB: She’s very open to a lot of things, which is great. She’s very respectful of an actor’s intuitive approach, and it’s hard to believe she began such a play at 25. The way in which she weaves these four women’s relationships together is so wonderfully clever.

LC: It must be nice to have a female-dominated cast too.

KB: You begin to realise how rare it is! It’s written very naturalistically, with a lot of the minutiae of their lives, but there are huge issues and choices tackled in the work. There’s so much going on beneath these everyday conversations. Paul, our director, is often the only man in the room! What’s great about the play is that although there are no men physically present, the fathers and husbands are still very much present in what the characters discuss and the subtext.

LC: You’ve played two really powerful women recently: Princess Diana and Carole King [Brayben won an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance]. How did you research their characters?

KB: Right now, it’s wonderful to play a character where everything’s in the text! You know, you can’t research it on YouTube or spend hours reading about it and worrying. That said, the wealth of information on Carole King and Diana was very helpful when I was forming my characters. You can watch gigs and interviews and pick up their personality quirks. Yet you have to work to find the private voice - most of those film clips are public, so actually the challenge is working out what they’re like when they’re not in the public eye.

LC: Now that Beautiful is over and you’re not singing every night, would you go back to playing live gigs?

KB: It’s interesting you say that, as I’ve been writing some of my own material recently and done a few gigs. But you’re absolutely right, my music had to take a backseat during the musical, singing seventeen songs a night or whatever it was! I would love to do more gigs; I think that theatre in general takes over my life, especially doing eight shows a week. In future I’d love to write music for theatre actually, I’m very open to those kinds of projects. Theatre is in my blood somehow!

LC: What’s the best thing you’ve seen at the theatre recently?

KB: I saw, and loved, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National. The performances were fantastic. I went in thinking I was going to see a musical and it really, really wasn’t! But I loved that about it. My parents are blues singers so I was kind of brought up on that music. I think it’s difficult to suspend your disbelief as an actor, as you’re already so in that world, but I really did and I felt like I was there.

LC: I think what’s really mesmerising is that it’s based on a true story, but contains the qualities of classical theatre, in the sense that it escalates to a point of high tension that you can’t really return from. It combines high theatre with musical elements.

KB: Exactly, the stakes go up and the dynamic changes so quickly! I liked the fact that it focused on backstage relationships and the rehearsal room, because working in theatre and music I know that backstage is where so much happens - I could really identify with some of that.

LC: You were born and raised in Lewisham. What are your favourite parts of London to explore nowadays?

KB: Gosh it depends! I still love Lewisham and Blackheath and Greenwich, I’m very much a southeast girl. I love the Southbank, so I’d probably hang out there: you’ve got the National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall, Poetry Library, lots of markets, there’s always something going on. I like going to Ping Pong too which isn’t far from there - fusion food is great!

My Mother Said I Never Should is at the St James Theatre 13 April - 21 May 2016. Tickets from £15.

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