A gamine figure in a skimpy top, Victoria Hamilton, full-lipped, vivacious and spiky-haired, takes another hefty puff of her cigarette. The combination produces a startling effect - sort of Audrey Hepburn meets the Spice Girls. It's hardly surprising that the young actress has already had a taste of the "Show us a bit more, darling" spiel of one insistent photographer during a recent magazine photo- shoot. "He suddenly said, `How do you feel about doing this topless?' " she recalls in disbelief. "If you're female and of a certain age, it seems to be expected that you're fine about that but I have no time for it."
Few outside the theatrical cognoscenti will have heard of Hamilton - a name plucked at random out of a telephone directory when Equity informed her she already had a namesake. "I could have been Vicky Spring -- my mother's name - but then I'd have been doing panto work forever." Those in the know say that will soon change. Critics have been tripping over themselves to lavish praise. On a fag break between rehearsals, she contemplates her latest role as Cordelia in the forthcoming Old Vic production of King Lear. "I'll be on a stage that Laurence Olivier has carried his Cordelia on to," she bubbles in the awestruck tones of one still coming to terms with her good fortune. Bagging one meaty role could be considered fortuitous but this 26-year-old actress's CV reads like a shopping list of the most desirable female theatrical roles - Cressida, Phoebe, Nina and now Cordelia.
So far it's been a gilded career path. While some of Victoria's former drama school classmates are still waiting to land their first professional job, she has moved seamlessly from the RSC to the Old Vic. "Some very very bad luck has to come my way soon. I've been extraordinarily lucky because of Peter."
Sir Peter Hall first saw her perform when, barely out of drama school, she starred in the two -hander, Retreat, by playwright James Saunders opposite Tim Piggott-Smith. Hall, who was casting The Master Builder, rolled up to the Orange Tree in Richmond with the male lead, Alan Bates.
"I knew they were in because it's such a tiny little theatre. It was hysterical because nobody watched the play. Every time Alan moved, so did 17 women in the front row. Tim and I got the giggles because it was so ridiculous." Evidently this didn't deter Hall and she was promptly cast as Hilde Wangel in the West End production.
Told by Hall that he wanted her to play Nina for his planned production of Chekhov's The Seagull, she didn't take it too seriously. "I thought `That's a fantastic compliment but it ain't gonna happen.' " Where perhaps Victoria has the edge over some of her contemporaries is that, unlike many young actresses who are lost without a script, she is naturally articulate, equally at home dissecting the text she performs.
"When you're handed a role like Nina, where God knows who has played it before you - and better than you ever could - you have to go through a certain process of making it your own. There's this big traditional convention that in the fourth act she is a broken woman. Peter and I agreed very early on that she survives."
The daughter of a Surrey advertising agent father and nursery teacher mother, the original plan was that this process of analysis would be put to good use reading English at Bristol University. Three weeks before she was due to go, she changed her mind. "I thought `I'll spend my life reading books and I don't want to wait three years to train vocationally.' " She began the rounds of auditions for all the major drama schools and was unceremoniously rejected by each and every one. "They all said, `Go away, you're dreadful, which I was. I was completely unprepared and probably horribly arrogant." A year later she was accepted by LAMDA. Did she win any prizes? "I did, but I can't remember what it was -- for imagination I think."
It's the only outward sign of dottiness. Since The Master Builder, there's been the Master Plan. Being asked to join Sir Peter Hall's new rep company and work with established performers like Alison Steadman and Felicity Kendal meant she had to turn down the offer of a film role. "I had people telling me that I was insane but I would never have had the opportunity to play these parts again. There won't be another West End production of The Seagull for three or four years and by then I'll be too old to play it. Or there'll be five girls coming up behind me who could play it just as well."
She has also managed to squeeze in a couple of TV roles, as Mrs Forster in Pride and Prejudice - "Blink and you'll miss me" - and Henrietta in Persuasion, with Ciaran Hinds. "I was two stone heavier at the time and very pink in the face." She reels off some other names she's worked with - Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Jack Davenport. Excuse me, Jack Davenport?
"Jack and I were not meant to be," she says of the man who has attained cult status as Miles in This Life. "He's a very sweet man and we had a couple of very nice dinners but that's it." At the moment, Victoria's romantic life isnot matching up to her theatrical success. "Not that I wouldn't like to be in love. I haven't forgotten how it feels although it's fading and I'd quite like someone to come along to remind me." Perhaps it's time she got "Peter" on the case.
`King Lear' opens 5 Sept; `The Seagull' and `The Provok'd Wife' to Dec, Old Vic, London SE1 (0171-928 7616) Janie Lawrence
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