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Brief Encounter With ... Tom Burke

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Tom Burke has returned to the Almeida Theatre to star alongside Billie Piper in Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty, which opens tonight (17 November 2011, previews from 10 November).

Reasons to Be Pretty, which is directed by Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough, is the final play in LaBute's trilogy about physical appearance – the first two being The Shape of Things and Fat Pig.

Burke previously appeared at the Almeida in John Caird’s production of Macbeth (starring Simon Russell Beale) in 2005. His recent West End credits include the Old Vic's revival of Noel Coward's Design for Living, Romeo in Romeo And Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe, The Cut at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Michael Grandage and Creditors, also at the Donmar, for which he received the Ian Charleson Award.

Tell us about Reasons to be Pretty
Well apart from being about the differences in men and women and the confusion that causes, which I guess you could say about most literature, Reasons to Be Pretty is about a crossroads everyone has sooner or later in life when you realise that your worst demons are the habits that you have become a creature of. The only source of liberation from this is our own instinct of what is right and what is wrong, nothing prescriptive, and often we require a crisis to bring our true will swimming up from the depths.

Who do you play?
I play Greg, who has the meaningless job of packing boxes of cereal, Kleenex and such like on a graveyard shift at a factory. But the events in the play put him in a real spin and he discovers what it is to have intention. I don't want to give anymore away.

Can you relate to the character, and the issues the play explores?
Yes. I mean particularly on the level of trying to go with the flow but still standing up for what you believe in but not becoming rigid about that.

Has Neil LaBute been involved in rehearsals?
Neil was involved in rehearsals. He is a director himself so he's careful to be there in the capacity of the writer. He was extremely helpful and once or twice made some changes. Very much based on how we were playing the scenes.

What makes the Almeida a special place to work?
Well apart from having very passionate and friendly staff, the Almeida is special because it does what it wants to do and doesn't have to douse itself in popularism. I think it quite rightly does not make the word 'fun' taboo, as frequently the most edgy work has a stealthy guise of entertainment and as Michael was saying the other day in reference to choosing texts and directors, “I don't see a world without humour so why would I want to present one.” The Almeida has a great appreciation of work which is both dark and light and so too does its audience. Which I guess is why it works.

How are you finding acting opposite Billie Piper?
Billie is a great joy to work with. We worked together many years ago on a TV film where we had to both age from I think 14 to 30 in the space of a four-week shoot or something and the job felt quite epic in my life because of that. It feels very right that we're working together again. I don't know how else to put it.

It's very much an ensemble piece. Does that help the rehearsal room dynamic?
Yes. I mean there's the story about the young director who says on the first day of rehearsals "This is going to be an Ensemble show" and the cynical old actor says wearily "Haven't you realised yet that just means every man for himself" I mention that only because there are people who have that view and also because the story makes me laugh. To me all great theatre is of course a collective effort. I think the plethora of awards out there have made people see theatre and film like a sport. Most actors’ experience of anything that would be termed 'chemistry' comes down to trust, which is impossible if you’re in competition with your cast.

What dream stage roles have you yet to tick off?
I don't really do that anymore. I think by doing that you may not see other opportunities which are there in front of you. I'd like to do any number of classics but it's more about the director, the designer, the whole team.

Reasons to Be Pretty, which also stars Kieran Bew and Siân Brooke, continues at the Almeida until 14 January 2012.


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