Theatre: Lorca, Dali, Bunuel: their naughtiness lives on

What connects Brecht with Spanish surrealism? Hayley Carmichael, of course.
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UNTIL VERY recently, Hayley Carmichael was a fairly well kept secret. Not any more. Her hilarious, profoundly touching performance as an upper-class girl falling for a chauffeur, in Kathryn Hunter's Almeida/ The Right Size production of Mr Puntila and His Man Matti, has changed all that.

Even as she natters before a performance, you see her giving herself up to ideas. Her expression keeps changing as emotions register across her freshly scrubbed face and thoughts race behind her eyes. Her brow furrows with puzzlement, then suddenly her expression changes, bewilderment whisked away by laughter. It all sounds very "actorish", but that's the last word you would use to describe her.

Although she's around 30, she looks extraordinarily young - she's extremely good at innocence - and, at the same time much, much older, helped by a Judi Dench-like crack in her voice. Best of all, she has the rare gift that true comic performers have: being able to stretch time. Her characters hit upon an idea and her directness and physical economy draw you in as she works through a particular moment in a way that looks utterly spontaneous.

Not that she's a bundle of confidence. "The other night I came off after the first scene and said to another actor, `Oh, they really don't want me to come back on stage.' And he said, `Why ever not?' You realise that personal paranoia is so not interesting. You can't indulge yourself like that. Just get on with it."

Mr Puntila closed on Saturday and on Thursday she joins her company, Told By An Idiot, to perform I Weep at My Piano as part of the London International Mime Festival.

The show is drawn from the work of Lorca, Dali and Bunuel, but don't expect a three-for-the-price-of-one bio-drama. "We were inspired by their imagination and their, well, naughty spirit. It's a piece in their image. We wanted to make a piece

about them but also about something that we understood, so as to open it up to an audience. Things about friendship, loving someone who doesn't love you... "

Told By An Idiot is a strikingly successful threesome. They met at Middlesex College, where John Wright was a teacher and Carmichael and Paul Hunter were students. A few years later, Hunter suggested working together on a tiny part of One Hundred Years of Solitude. That became On the Verge of Exploding and, a year later, Wright joined them to do it at Edinburgh. Gradually, with the help of their manager Nick Sweeting, they began to tour further afield. They formalised this ad hoc working arrangement, producing the daft and delightful You Haven't Embraced Me Yet, although they don't work as a permanent ensemble. They prefer sometimes to work apart with other companies, to keep their own collaborations fresh.

In the past they've been mistakenly bracketed as "physical theatre" but their plans include a middle-scale project with Northern Stage, and Biyi Bandele-Thomas is writing them a play - a first, as all their previous work has been devised. Carmichael thrives on being fed by the input of others and she has been working in all manner of places. Prior to Mr Puntila, she played Cordelia to Kathryn Hunter's King Lear at the Leicester Haymarket and the Young Vic, but has done very little text-based work. However, she will do Marivaux's The Dispute with Neil Bartlett in a co- production between the Lyric Hammersmith and the RSC.

Her rising profile slightly unnerves her. "It's strange how you are perceived to have `made it'. Because people see your photo somewhere they say, `Oh, you're doing well', or `You've finally made it'. That's all very nice but I think Told By An Idiot got somewhere from the very beginning." Hope lights up her face. "We made a show about love and pain and all the rest of it, and that's what we'd wanted to do and we're still doing it."

`I Weep at My Piano' is at BAC from Thursday (0171-223 2223)