Shaun Dooley and Emily Bruni in Lunch. Picture credit Marc Brenner
When Shaun Dooley was about 16 he asked his dad for advice on whether or not he should pursue a career as an actor.
His dad, a miner and in the midst of seeing his pit closing at the time, furnished him with this advice: “You are going to be unemployed whatever you do, so you might as well be unemployed chasing the dream.”
It was he says a pivotal moment in his life. Shaun had always wanted to be a vet specialising in large animals, but had abandoned this dream after failing his exams. Luckily his talents had been spotted by the teacher of a youth theatre group he went to who thought he should be an actor.
“When they told me I said ‘don’t be stupid’ but unbeknownst to me they’d already phoned up the Btec drama course and got me an audition,” he remembers.
“They handed me a piece of paper with the audition time and information on where I should go so I learned the speech for it and off I went. Basically they handed me my career.
“It was other peoples’ fault,” he adds laughing.
Happily he has not looked back and since he graduated the Yorkshire born actor who now lives with his wife and children in Brockley, has enjoyed a successful career with a variety of roles on both stage and screen.
Indeed in the last few years he’s been a regular on TV with appearances in - to name but a few - EastEnders, Coronation Street, The White Queen, Wolfblood, Misfits, Ordinary Lies, the phenomenally successful Broadchurch, Cuffs and most recently as a crime boss in DCI Banks.
But now he is swapping the screen for the stage to star in a new production of fellow actor and writer Steven Berkoff’s double bill, Lunch and The Bow Of Ulysses.
The two plays are being shown back to back at London’s Trafalgar Studios and in a chat ahead of opening night next Monday, Shaun tells me it’s by far the scariest thing he’s ever done.
“Most of the stuff I do is on screen so I like to do a play every couple of years or so as it gives me a balance,” he says.
“However when they asked me to do it and I got sent the scripts I was utterly petrified - it’s a massive ask as it’s a really intense one hour 40 minutes, there are no breaks and we are on stage the whole time - it scared the hell out of me.
“So much so that I nearly didn’t do it. But I sat down with my wife Polly and we talked about it and in the end we both came to the conclusion that if something makes you that scared that’s the reason you should do it.”
Lunch was written in the 80s and charts the relationship of a couple following their initial meeting. The Bow Of Ulysses was written 20 years later and shows what has happened to them and their relationship.
Both two handers, they showcase the brilliance of Berkoff’s writing and how it had developed and changed over the intervening years.
“It’s been fascinating to get under the skin of Steven Berkoff,” says Shaun. “It’s the first time I’ve done anything of his so that in itself has been hugely exciting. I’ve also deliberately not watched any recordings of his plays as I didn’t want to go with any preconceived idea of what was expected.
“I put a lot of trust in Nigel [Harman] our director who’s brilliant and Emily [Bruni, his co-star] who is wonderful and so it’s been a safe place to delve into the darkness of these pieces.”
And while he admits both plays do have their fair share of dark moments he says there is a real beauty to the language which audiences should relish.
“It’s some of the most incredible writing I’ve ever read,” he enthuses. “The more you dig the more beautiful it becomes.
“It’s poetic and very funny but it’s also raw, heartbreaking and full of emotion with an inherent intensity running through it so you do feel exhausted at the end of it.
“What’s brilliant is that Berkoff takes human emotion and instead of internalising it he shows you it in all its dirty glory. It’s utterly brilliant. I’d like to think that his writing will get staged more often as a result of this because it’s amazing.
“He wrote these plays 20 years apart at different stages in his own life but both featuring the same couple. We see them as they were to begin with when they first meet and then 20 years down the line after they’d got married and had kids.
“But because the second was written all those years afterwards it has a totally different rhythm and speech patterns which makes it fascinating.
“The producer also made a conscious decision not to age us up and there are barely any props - just the two of us in a room. But it allows the words to shine and they really do.”
Shaun describes his character as someone with a lot of insecurity, desperate to please and be intimate but terrified of it at the same time.
“He’s damaged, very insecure and easily hurt, desperate to be something else and someone else,” says Shaun.
“He’s also desperate to leave but scared to death of it, desperate for intimacy but scared of that as well. He’s a fascinating character and as soon as he gets on the back foot he attacks and is very animalistic.
“People will be able to relate to him on some levels but I’d hate to think anyone would look at him and think ‘that’s me’ or ‘I know someone like that’!” he adds laughing.
“There are moments when you think it’s really funny - what’s really funny is the vileness and the bitterness, listening to people say things you wouldn’t ever say in a million years. It’s like doing a ridiculously dark sitcom.”
As well as confronting his fears Shaun says another draw for doing the plays was that it marks his West End debut.
“I figured that if I was going to have my moment in the West End it ought to be something big like this,” he laughs.
“These parts are easily the size of Shakespeare and rammed with poetry and speeches that don’t run in a linear way.
“It’s also the most exposing play I have been in in my life - it’s just me, Emily and a bench - there is nowhere for us to hide and we never leave the stage. The Trafalgar Studio is a confined space so it feels really intimate although as you sit and watch it unfold it can be quite uncomfortable and claustrophobic at times.
“Once we start though it’s a roller coaster and the audience is with us all the way - in fact they are part of it as at various points we talk to them, smashing the fourth wall to bits.
“I love graft and hard work but this is easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done - it’s mentally and physically exhausting but it’s brilliant!”
And he adds this may well become one of his career highlights although he does have plenty to choose from.
One of his favourite roles he tells me was as Joe Gargery in the BBC TV series of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in 2011.
“I loved Joe,” he says. “I learned so much and even some blacksmithery which was brilliant. But to get under the skin of this great character was very special and I really enjoyed that job.
“But I’ve been lucky to have had the roles I’ve had. I tend to not have a bucket list, and certainly don’t have any real ambition to play Hamlet for example. He doesn’t really do it for me somehow.
“Titus [Andronicus] however is a different matter. I like the awful horrific tragedy that he goes through. Besides it was my audition speech for drama school which was another scary thing so I feel a certain affinity with the role.”
But until that offer comes through he’s concentrating on his current role and says he hopes audiences will come open minded.
“Berkoff is an astonishing writer so what I would say is that audiences should leave any preconception about what it’s going to be like at the door and listen to the words,” he says.
“Our job is to serve the play and be true to it. I hope people who see it will think it’s an incredible piece of writing - if they do then we have done our job.”
Lunch and The Bow Of Ulysses is on at the Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall until November 5. Tickets from £19.50. Visit www.atgtickets.com or call the box office on 0844 871 7632 for full listings.