Show People / . . . small ball of fire: Claire Skinner

FOR Claire Skinner, the week between the end of The Importance of Being Earnest and the beginning of rehearsals for Harold Pinter's new play, Moonlight, has been her only setback this year. She went to the Canary Islands and discovered that 'it's full of lava and people lying about like handbags'. A week later, at the Almeida Theatre, the only signs of this were sunburn, freckles and blonder hair that made her look quite unlike Natalie in Life is Sweet.

That was the Mike Leigh film in which she and Jane Horrocks played far-from-identical twins. Horrocks had a scrunched-up face, a snarl and a 'Bollocks' T-shirt; Skinner had a watchful face, wore men's shirts and talked common sense. She was quiet, boyish and self-sufficient. It's only when you see Skinner sipping coffee after rehearsals in the Almeida bar - a delicate, nervy figure, feet tapping on the floor, fingers twisting round the cup - that the extent of that characterisation becomes clear.

She has a natural juvenile quality that takes her from Cecily, the 18- year-old in the Wilde, to Bridget, the 16-year-old in the Pinter. How old, in fact, is she? '28,' she says, then bites her lip, pauses and doesn't let the lip go. What's the matter? 'I think I ought to start playing grown-ups.'

She did her own growing up in Hemel Hempstead. Her dad, who died two years ago, was a shopkeeper and sub-postmaster in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire. Her mother worked as a secretary. (She has one sister, a solicitor, and one brother, a painter and decorator.) The local football team was Emerald Vale, and that was where she started. 'I was doing impressions at the club dances when I was about eight.'

She trained at Lamda (leaving the same year, 1987, as no one in particular), then took the once-traditional route of solid years in rep: Oldham, Clywd, Basingstoke, Liverpool and two seasons in Scarborough with Alan Ayckbourn. That felt like home. 'If you've got a free moment, you're in something.'

Her first film, The Rachel Papers, was 'terrible'. She played Gloria, the brassy redhead: 'Ludicrous, can you imagine it?' It's her chewing- gum that gets stuck on the hero's condom. Her second film was Life is Sweet. Mike Leigh's characters develop through improvisation, and in secrecy. 'You know what you've got to do and when. But you don't know what the others are doing.' It worked. Thorough and clear, her performance made Life sweeter still.

Skinner plays a nurse in her second Mike Leigh film, the award-winning Naked (coming out in November). She appears at the end, and again has no idea about 'this great volume of stuff - this hell - the other characters have gone through before . . . I was coming in from left field. I was doing the Benny Hill Show in the middle of King Lear.'

Next came the sitcom Chef, a vehicle for Lenny Henry in which Skinner, as sous-chef and straight person, refrained from grabbing the wheel but certainly had dual controls.

For The Importance of Being Earnest, she did one of those 'really old- fashioned' auditions. She went on stage, the lights were on, she couldn't see the director (Nicholas Hytner), and he asked her to read. At the next audition Hytner did the really old- fashioned thing and climbed up on stage and offered her the job. 'That's the best part.'

She played Cecily as determined, bespectacled and bonkers. The sort of girl who believes the fantasies she writes in her diary. 'She is quite nutty. She works in straight lines and gets what she wants.'

Pinter's new play 'resonates very strongly'. There is a father-daughter relationship and the father is dying. 'I've never felt like this about a play before.' But she didn't know if she could do it. Maggie Smith had an option to extend her role as Lady Bracknell for a further six weeks, which meant a clash of dates. Fortunately Importance was losing its importance for Smith too. So Skinner traded in the 1890s for the 1990s, and shed two more years. She may go younger still. The part she most wants to play, Juliet, is half her age.

'When people want age they want something muscular, not someone who is light. I'm light. My weight is light. My voice is light. I think that's held me back slightly.' So why speak like that? 'I have a horror of turning into a ginny actress, you know, the cigarette and the deep voice.'

'Moonlight': Almeida, 071-359 4404, previews from Thurs, opens 7 Sept.

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