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

Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
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.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate