Nice to be back: Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken in A Small Family Business
Nice to be back: Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken in A Small Family Business
© Johan Persson

How does it feel to be back at the National?

I'm not just crawling, but I love working at the National. In fact I would say it's probably my favourite place to work. The Pillowman was such an amazing experience because I was with three brilliant actors, Adam Godley, David Tennant and Jim Broadbent, in a cracking play by Martin McDonagh, directed by an amazing director John Crowley. It was such fun that I did wonder if it would be as good coming back, but so far it's been great.

What was it about A Small Family Business that persuaded you to return?

I said to my agent a few months ago, "no more theatre". At the time I was doing The Same Deep Water As Me at the Donmar and overlapping with rehearsals for Richard II at the RSC. I said, "I'm skint, I've got children to think about, and my wife's not speaking to me. I need to go out and earn some money in the real world". But then I got offered this. It was funny because I didn't want to read it in case I liked it. Then I was told it's the part that Michael Gambon originated at the Olivier and it hasn't been done in London since. I thought, 'Oh bloody hell'. So I read it and of course it's a fantastic part, in one of Ayckbourn's best plays. I just couldn't say no, could I?

Last time you worked here Nicholas Hytner was at the beginning of his tenure as artistic director, now he's at the end. What changes have you noticed?

I think Nick has done such a good job with this theatre, and he's got more people coming thanks to the £12 seats. There's such a buzz around the place. Every actor I know wants to work here, and I don't think that's changed much in the 10 years. It's a pity the canteen is currently closed [as part of the NT Future developments] because that's a very special place. When I first worked here, on Dealer's Choice back in 1994, I remember sitting on a table next to Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave. It was just amazing to be sharing a canteen with your heroes.

Give us an overview of A Small Family Business

It's set when it was written, which is the mid-80s, around the height of Thatcherism. It's about a very honest businessman, Jack McCracken, who is asked to take over his father-in-law's ailing furniture business. He comes in and initially wants to run the business on the terms that he's always lived his life, which is under a very moral guise. But he finds out gradually that the business is completely corrupt and the corruption involves almost every single member of his immediate family. He gradually gets sucked into it and becomes as corrupt as the rest of them, without realising it. So by the end of the play he is just as corrupt as everyone else but still thinks that he's towing the moral line.

So it's a political allegory?

I think Alan was responding in part to Mrs Thatcher talking about there being 'no such thing as society', and saying it was therefore difficult for a decent, moral man to make his way in the world. Because if there is no community sense, and no one else is playing the same game as you, you're basically buggered. It's still very relevant today because people are having their wages squeezed and are on the tape, because they've got to survive. So it's about survival really. Can you survive morally in a corrupt world? The great thing about Alan is that he writes entertaining plays in which you can have a really good laugh, but with a moral message you can talk about afterwards.

Does that mirror your own image, as a performer who can balance comedy and a darker side?

I've found throughout my career that I tend to get cast either as out-and-out villains, or as comedy characters. When I asked the National why they wanted me to play Jack, they said I just came naturally to mind, and I can see that this role plays to my strengths. I'm so flattered to be following in Michael Gambon's footsteps, because he's my absolute hero. He has a naturally warm presence but he can also be really terrifying.

'I tend to get cast either as villains or comedy characters': Lindsay and the cast of A Small Family Business
'I tend to get cast either as villains or comedy characters': Lindsay and the cast of A Small Family Business
© Johan Persson

Your director, Adam Penford, is not a big name (yet)

I was a bit sceptical about him at first, but then I thought 'anyone who Nick Hytner's working with has got to know his onions'. And sure enough, when I met him I was immediately impressed. When you've been in the business for 20 years you can sniff out directors who are just out to make a name for themselves, and you know what their rehearsal room will be like. The older I get, the more I seek collaboration, and Adam gets the balance just right.

It's certainly a change from Shrek - what are your memories of that?

Shrek is the hardest thing I've ever done, without question. It wasn't the best time of my life, to be truthful, but I learnt a huge amount from it. It was such a massive project so the pressure was enormous, and the prosthetics were really tough; I was always in before everyone else and I left after everyone else. I probably made a few mistakes, but I was just so conscious of not wanting to let anyone down. I remember a very early rehearsal when there were two guys from Dreamworks and Sam Mendes in the room. The pressure was immense. That being said, if you asked me if, with hindsight, I would do it again, I absolutely would. Jack Lemmon once said "if a part terrifies you, do it".

Will your return to theatre be for the long term?

Well I'm a bit pissed off with Rory Kinnear for playing Iago so well, as it's a role I've always wanted to play! I say I want to get out of theatre but it's just such an amazing privilege to do, and it also means you get to fine tune a role in the company of really talented people. I was talking to David Morrissey about this, and he said "I envy you Nigel - I spend most of my time trying to make bad dialogue work on TV and film". That's rarely a problem in theatre. Certainly not when you're working with Alan Ayckbourn.

A Small Family Business runs until 27 August. Nigel Lindsay and Debra Gillett will be talking about 'Family Values in A Small Family Business' at the National Theatre on 26 June at 3pm.