Nancy Carroll: She's on the money

A play about the expenses scandal opens tonight. Award-winning actress Nancy Carroll tells Alice Jones about playing an MP's grasping wife

Two years ago Nancy Carroll was named Best Actress at the Olivier and Evening Standard Theatre Awards, for her heartbreaking performance as Benedict Cumberbatch's wife in After the Dance. She was eight-weeks pregnant by the end of the run at the National and went straight to the Almeida to star in House of Games for three months, during which her nausea was so bad that one night she was sick on her co-star. By the time the ceremony for the Oliviers came round, she was eight months pregnant. The shock of winning set off her contractions and she hardly made it to the podium before she had to stagger into a taxi and go home to prepare to give birth.

In other words, Carroll, 40 years old and 15 years in the business, is a trouper. The trials and tribulations of her latest play, The Duck House, are so much water off a duck's back. A frenzied farce with the slapstick of One Man, Two Guvnors and the topical jokes of Have I Got News For You, it has been touring the regions before it opens in the West End tonight. The other day in Malvern, a door stuck and she couldn't get on stage for two minutes. The week before, in Guildford, she threw a prop and knocked out a light. "I turned round and said, 'It's alright I don't think they noticed'. The audience was hysterical for three minutes."

The play is written by Dan Paterson and Colin Swash, whose combined credits include 40 series of Have I Got News for You and 12 of Mock the Week, and is directed by Terry Johnson. Ben Miller stars as a Labour backbencher who is planning to defect to the other side when the expenses scandal breaks. Carroll plays his grasping, bubbly-guzzling wife, Felicity. "Oh gawd. It's the most fun I've ever had on stage. Slightly too much fun. There's a lot of corpsing going on," she says, sounding rather like a jolly sixth former. She looks like one, too – an actressy jumble of eccentric scarves, unruly auburn hair and freckles.

Although Carroll is well-versed in comedy – she starred in See How They Run in the West End and recent credits include The Magistrate at the National and The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar – the show has required a shift in gear. "In TV everything has a much faster turnaround. We are quite precious by comparison. This is quite cut-throat. If it's not funny, you say so, and you move on. The rehearsal space is usually a very safe environment in which you can expose yourself, try things and not feel stupid. So that was quite a shock."

Carroll does not get nervous, although she has suffered from stagefright in the past. She was performing with the RSC in Newcastle at the beginning of her career when it hit. "I could just see the reflection of every pair of spectacles in the audience. It all became slow motion and as every single word came out of my mouth, I wasn't sure it would. So terrifying."

It has happened since. In Arcadia in the West End four years ago, she kept stammering on a certain line. "It tends to be fleeting moments, really. It's a very leftfield experience. It's because what we do is such a bizarre physiological experiment. They say that going on stage for the first time in a show has the adrenaline equivalent of a minor car crash. It's fight or flight. So it's about controlling that adrenaline. It's funny, when you don't experience it, you feel like you haven't really given your all."

She still remembers her debut performance. She was three years old and did a tapdance at Brixton Town Hall. When it came to her big moment she refused to go on stage without her mother. "So she had to stay behind the curtain and do the whole dance with me," she says. She grew up in Herne Hill, south London, where she still lives, and went to Alleyn's School, where she was in all of the plays. Well, almost all of them. "I remember being terribly upset once about not being cast and flailing across the school playground, thinking my life was over. My drama teacher came and grabbed me and said, 'Promise me it will never mean this much to you again.' I was about 14 at the time." Did she heed that advice? "You do have to have a thick skin; that allows you to stand up and brush yourself off… But sometimes you'll get down to the last two for something and someone will say, 'I want A not B.' And it's devastating. Completely devastating."

After school, she followed her parents – both graphic designers – and went to study fine art (her brother also works in the arts, as a film-set designer). She spent a year in Italy learning how to mix her own paints and stretch canvasses before starting at Leeds University, where she found the course too conceptual and the life of an artist too solitary. She wanted to create in company. So she applied to LAMDA, paying for her first year with her fee from a tampon advertisement. After that, her first professional job was in An Ideal Husband. "I literally left drama school and was in a read-through with Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver and Rupert Everett. I thought, 'Well, this is all right.' And of course it didn't carry on like that at all."

Instead, she went to the RSC, to play "various hags and understudy squirrel" in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before quickly climbing the ranks. She met her husband, the actor Jo Stone-Fewings, when they were both filmed as part of a touring troupe for the BBC documentary In Search of Shakespeare. They met on the first day of rehearsals; nine days later they were engaged. The proposal happened at Shakespeare's school, in front of an audience. Carroll was wearing a long, white dress, "and Jo said, 'We could do it now.' And I sort of knew what he meant. It was just sort of instant, and very un-mad. It was a calm knowing, really. If you're in the right frame of mind, it's an animal connection. That was 11 years ago."

They now have two children – Nelly, 5 and Arthur, he of the Oliviers contractions, 2. Nelly had a scarcely less dramatic gestation. Carroll was performing in The Enchantment, again at the National, again as a suicidal heroine. At the final performance, she was nearly six months pregnant. "It was hilarious. I was playing a virgin and getting fatter and fatter by the day. Every night my dead body had to be carried in a wet, heavy 19th-century frock. They were ready to bring in the forklift truck by the end."

She and her husband now take it in turns to work outside London. "With a family, you're constantly balancing the books and there are moments when it's quite scarily unbalanced. At that point you question fundamentally what it is that we're doing because you feel that you're putting your kids' stability in jeopardy. You feel that your careers are luxuries."

After the Dance and the awards were a game-changer, she says. There was talk of the show going to Broadway but the timing didn't work for Cumberbatch. "Quite rightly he wanted to seize opportunities to do more stuff on screen. Sometimes it's lovely to leave moments as moments. Rather than milk them for every single ounce of life," she says smoothly. She would love to return to Rattigan and play Hester Collyer, the tragic heroine of The Deep Blue Sea, but worries that she is not quite old enough yet. "I'm a great believer in earning the right to things. Having been on the planet a little bit longer, you have an emotional advantage."

The disadvantage, of course, is that over the age of 40, parts for women start to dwindle alarmingly. "It's not for the fainthearted, this profession," she says. "Certainly there are fewer women's parts. And often, even if the part is written for someone in their fifties, they cast someone in their forties. There are a lot of very brilliant actresses for whom there isn't a lot of work. From your mid to late forties to your mid to late fifties, it's terribly hard."

She hopes that the rise of female artistic directors such as Josie Rourke at the Donmar and Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court might make a difference. "What's brilliant about those women is that they're working as women. Perhaps they can oversee a shift. As much as employing women, it's about representing women. We need to harness the emotional openness and potential of women at that particular part of their life, and write about it. Women don't just go silent for 10 years. Far from it. I think you come into your own at that point, in fact. My husband is always telling me that that's when you hit your sexual peak. I'm rather looking forward to it."

'The Duck House', Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2 (0844 412 4663; to 29 March

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?