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Weekend Extra: Nancy Carroll is thrilled to be back in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

‘WE WEREN’T touching, we weren’t kissing, we weren’t fighting,’ says Nancy Carroll, with an air that suggests she may like to do all three. The Father Brown star, who plays haughty hedonist Lady Felicia in the TV show, is casting her mind back to the last time she was in rehearsals.

It was at the National Theatre seven months ago and despite working under new social distancing rules, Covid eventually won the day and darkened stages all over the land.

‘We didn’t finish making the show, unfortunately,’ says Nancy, though she hopes that next year it might be possible to try again.

Meanwhile, rehearsals continue for her latest play, Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s 1978 autobiographical dissection of an affair. And this time, just a week before the production kicks off the Theatre Royal Bath’s Welcome Back season, it looks as if the award-winning actress and her fellow cast members have the measure of the pandemic.

‘There was a discussion about holding back on the intimacy,’ says Nancy of the current rehearsals. ‘But then we figured we’ve got to do it, so we’ve leapt in, really.’

She and her co-stars Joseph Millson and Edward Bennett have all been tested for Covid, of course. And everyone is temperature checked every day. But the show is arriving in the teeth of the pandemic’s second wave and under threat of another lockdown.

‘I hope that won’t be the case. Economically theatres need to be opening up,’ says Nancy. ‘Theatres are answering a call, not only from the industry but from audiences.

‘That’s what it feels like. It’s a bit like ENSA,’ adds the actress, referring to the entertainers and morale raisers who performed during World War II.

So is she performing in Betrayal out of a sense of duty? ‘No, I jumped at it! I haven’t done Pinter since drama school. And there are certain parts that if I don’t bloody well do them now, I’m going to run out of time.’

No theatregoer would disagree that Nancy is using her time extremely well. In the National’s 2010 production of Terence Rattigan’s tragedy After The Dance, about pre-war upper-class party animals, she won a best actress Olivier Award for the role of Joan, which she played opposite Benedict Cumberbatch as her husband.

Yet it was her Hester in last summer’s The Deep Blue Sea (also Rattigan’s) at Chichester that Nancy describes as ‘the big one’. The mid-20th century classic is about forbidden love and was partly inspired by Rattigan’s (then illegal) gay relationship with a young actor. Hester’s version of forbidden love is with an RAF pilot for whom she leaves the comfort of her marital home.

‘It was about an emancipated woman ahead of her time,’ says Nancy. ‘She was someone who doesn’t belong to the period in which she lives, and that is just terribly exciting to play.’

Betrayal is also about forbidden love; the plot is told in reverse, from the aftermath of the affair back in time to its beginning. Similarly to Rattigan, Pinter famously based this play on his own affair, in this case with the presenter Joan Bakewell.

‘She was initially hurt when she saw the first production,’ says Nancy. ‘But she got to a place where she saw the play as a celebration of a different time, of a great love and a period in her life that was incredibly fun.’

Unlike last year’s updated West End production starring Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Cox and Zawe Ashton, this one, directed by Jonathan Church, keeps the action in the 1970s. Nancy reckons affairs are frowned on more now than they were then.

‘Social media didn’t exist and people had a different view of marriage because they got married much younger and didn’t really know who they were.’

So do we live in a less liberal age?

‘Maybe. There are fewer secrets. Maybe duplicity was easier then. There is so much about the play that is completely of its time. But then there is another side that is just entirely human.’

Raised in south London, Nancy’s own artist parents split up when she was seven. Yet she resists the suggestion that her childhood experience has ended up informing her choice of plays, many of which have featured marriages on the rocks.

‘I guess there was a certain emotional journey I went through as a kid,’ agrees Nancy. ‘But we all have our personal journey that cracks you in half and puts you back together again.’

When it comes to her real-life relationship with actor Jo Stone-Fewings, with whom she has two children, there is a lot of care put into their 18-year marriage.

‘We have the two week rule,’ says Nancy. ‘Wherever we are, we are prepared to travel ridiculous distances to spend small amounts of time together.’

Keeping to the rule during Betrayal’s two week run in Bath should not be too much of a challenge then. And anyway, these days it’s just good to be back on stage, says Nancy.

‘It’s a happy crew’, she says of the play’s cast and creatives.

‘We all feel so grateful to be working at a point we thought we wouldn’t be working at all.’

Betrayal is at Theatre Royal Bath, October 14-31, theatreroyal.org.uk