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Anybody over a certain age will recognise Rory Kinnear as the son of the actor Roy Kinnear: the resemblance of face and comic ease are striking. But Kinnear Sr died when his son was only 10 years old, which perhaps helps to explain the considerable difference between the two. In the five years since this Kinnear became a professional actor he has proved himself to have exceptional range, with psychological darknesses and subtleties that were never part of his father’s legend. He’s neither a glamourpuss nor a dreamboat. He can be heart-stoppingly lovable by virtue of sheer charisma but he can also stop our hearts the other way, with his capacity for despair, horror, danger.

He first entered the consciousness of many theatre-goers as Tranio in Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company Taming of the Shrew in 2003-4. He reached the West End when that Shrew came to town in early 2004. Even though Tranio is nobody’s favourite role in the play, Kinnear caught everyone’s attention.

In the spring and summer of 2004, he was Laertes in the Trevor Nunn Hamlet at the Old Vic. That autumn, he joined the Almeida’s award-winning production of Festen, directed by Rufus Norris, when it arrived in the West End, and he virtually turned the play around by the immediacy with which he played the drunken, loutish brother.

In summer 2005, he switched into a completely different character: the aristocratic schemer Mortimer in Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Kinnear’s contrasting performances in Festen and Mary Stuart were among the finest acting London had to offer.

At last this year Kinnear got to play a play’s protagonist – and in his debut at the National Theatre. As Simon, he was playing a gay character, confused, tossed between disappointment and hope, and very funny. This was in Samuel Adamson’s Southwark Fair, directed at the Cottlesloe by Nicholas Hytner. Like all Kinnear’s acting, it seemed effortless. Only on watching it a second time did I begin to appreciate how intelligent, how fine some of his acting decisions were.

Southwark Fair, one of the best new plays of the year, was a metrocomedy with astonishing undercurrents of individual trauma and romantic longing. In Kinnear’s hands, it kept swerving brilliantly into sudden zones of pain, hope, compassion and ruefulness – and lightly, hilariously.

Acting friends tell me he is nicknamed “Rory Career” because he is so driven. That’s fine by me: his own commitment to the serious business of acting has been among the best reasons to watch London theatre for the last three years. Ánd this month he enters the distinguished shortlist of actors Hytner has worked with a second time, when he plays Sir Fopling Flutter in the Restoration comedy The Man of Mode, yet another extension to his range.

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