Danny, 11, enjoys pet reptiles and West End stardom

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IT IS A rare treat to meet the actor who has given the performance of the week on the West End stage and discover that this is the first newspaper interview he has ever given.

Eleven-year-old Danny Worters does not sit in his tiny dressing room at the Ambassadors Theatre. He perches in it, making it look large. He is 4 ft 5 in and weighs five stone. In his favourite position, on the work surface next to the basin, he hugs his knees to his chest, and his hazel eyes fix you with a peculiar mixture of impishness and intensity, just as they do on stage.

Off stage are you into football or computers, I ask. 'No,' he replies, suddenly enthusiastic. 'I'm into reptiles. I've got one snake, two box turtles, and I'm getting two lizards next week. Please mention my snake. Her name's Zoe. She's almost my best friend, but she doesn't have any feelings with me. She's very suspicious, but very pretty and very elegant.'

David Mamet, eat your heart out. What you'd give for dialogue like that.

Danny has disarmed and disturbed audiences in the world premiere of the new Mamet play The Cryptogram, which opened last Wednesday. In a three-hander with Lindsay Duncan and Eddie Izzard, he plays a boy affected by nightmares, insomnia and hearing voices 'calling my name', as he watches and only dimly understands the break-up of a marriage, alienation, lack of support, anger and betrayal.

The play is on one level slight, on another devastating, as these themes are explored through broken dialogue. But the lingering memory, not least for parents whose own children have had nightmares, is of Danny's intensity, the way he conveys traumatic, deep-felt, but inarticulated, fear and terror in his West End stage debut.

The performance has another fascinating aspect to it. Set in Chicago in 1959, the play clearly gives psychological insights into the young Mamet whose parents divorced and who would have been exactly Danny's age.

The reviews have described Danny's performance as 'superb', 'intense' and 'excellent', though he has not seen any of them. 'Greg (Mosher, the director) won't let me see any until the end of the run. But my parents are keeping them.'

Danny's parents are both musicians. His father plays double bass with the London Symphony Orchestra and his mother is a freelance cellist. Danny is at primary school in Kingston, and is not yet at the stage where he gets homework which would have to be supervised in his dressing room, as is the case with child actors in other plays.

In the play Danny retreats several times up a long staircase to an unseen bedroom, though it is doubtful that Mamet could have imagined a bedroom like the young actor's real one at home: 'I keep my snake and box turtles in my bedroom in three tanks by my two drum kits. I spent a month reading nine books about snakes. My school bag was so heavy every morning, it was full of these hardbacks . . .'

Danny veers disconcertingly between a curiously mature discussion of the play and a childlike, embarrassed amusement about his parents and sisters (Sophie, aged 9, and Charlotte, aged 22,) watching from the stalls.

'When I first read the play it was hard to take in because I didn't know what a lot of the things meant. It wasn't a gory ending, but it was a very, very sad ending. Rather than scaring you it got you thinking. There are so many different meanings to the play. The child can't sleep; betrayal, I think it's mainly about. Eddie and Lindsay and I get on very well. We point out mistakes. Over the period you get very close.

'I've never had nightmares like the boy in the play, though I used to be afraid of the dark. To be very real you have to think your dad has left you. The only time I get very, very sad, and it's always such a shock, is when Lindsay goes crazy with me and Eddie turns on me and goes completely against me.

'But the worst experience I had was when my sister was in the front row. She was sitting there with a big smirk on her face. I could see her but I just pretended she wasn't there.'

Danny started acting three years ago. 'I saw an ad in the newspaper for a place called Stagecoach, three hours after school. I needed something to do 'cos I didn't have anything to do after school. I went there once a week. They quite liked me, 'cos they put me in a show at the Waterman's (arts centre in Brentford). I like acting because it's just fun. You meet lots of people.'

He then went on to play Andrea Sarti, so often a part for precocious talents, in The Life Of Galileo at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, and after three auditions was selected as one of the two boys who will alternate in The Cryptogram. The producers who have watched Richard Claxton in rehearsal (he takes over from Danny in August) say his performance is equally striking.

Mamet, who is making a film of his previous play Oleanna, has not yet been over to see the production, but Danny says he is looking forward to meeting him.

'I want to carry on being an actor. It's all so exciting. I really enjoyed the first night party. And the curtain calls are nice because people clap and you can see it's worth it because they have enjoyed it.'

Meanwhile, 11 or not, Danny is earning a West End salary for his performance. But like any successful actor he is putting a bit away for the possible lean times. 'I normally take a small amount out of the money and spend it on things for the animals and put the rest of the money in the bank and I save it. It will be more useful later.'

Critic's view, page 22

(Photograph omitted)