Waste is set in 1924 and features a group of politicians and their acquaintances. The main character, Henry Trebell, is an independent politician, wanting to join the Tory party in order to push a bill for the disestablishment of the Church. The first act takes place at a country retreat where several influential people have gathered in order to manipulate the support and content of the bill to the Torys liking.

The play explores many issues, such as the ruling classes’ attitude towards their roles and their rights within society, but we are seeing them out of the House of Commons, off the soap box and in their living room. It is so fascinating.

My character, Amy O’Connell, is affiliated with this social group through her husband, who was ostracised by them after he went to Ireland and joined Sinn Fein. Amy comes back and they tolerate her. They find her annoying and far too much of a man’s woman, but they put up with her because she is entertaining. She has an affair with Henry Trebell and becomes pregnant by him. In the second act, he finds out and their duologue ends with her decision not to keep the baby. By the third act, she has died from an abortion.

To be a first-time mother playing a woman who dies because she doesn’t want to become a mother is strange, exciting and challenging, but wonderful as well. That’s when acting becomes acting because it is so far from where you are in your life.

My only experience of Harley Granville Barker before this was The Voysey Inheritance at the National two years ago. I’m far from being an expert on him, but my interest has been fired up. I think he was an extraordinary man. He and his contemporaries achieved so much for British theatre. I didn’t actively seek out another Barker play after The Voysey Inheritance, it was just luck, but it is interesting to have played Alice Maitland in that and to play Amy O’Connell now. They are two very different characters.

Amy is damaged goods really. She’s a woman who’s invited to parties because she amuses men but she doesn’t have the education or the breeding. What she has is her looks and her wit. She has the confidence of a woman who has always been attractive, but the insecurity of someone who has never been wanted. Alice Maitland was the opposite. She had an innate confidence that comes from money and education. Amy is similarly witty and present, but she doesn’t have the social stamina to defy her critics.

This is the third time I’ve worked with Samuel West. I think he’s a wonderful director, and he’s so passionate about this play. We’re all so excited about this production, we all want it to be as ambitious, modern and exciting as it should be.

Waste is frighteningly relevant today. Every morning when you read the paper, there’s something that relates to the issues the play raises. It is incredibly emotionally gripping and self-aware, particularly in the version we’re doing, which is the one Barker re-wrote in 1927, 20 years after he had first completed the play. In 1907 you hear the words of an idealist, whereas by 1927 he had lived in his body a bit and the play benefits as a result.

- Nancy Carroll was talking to Kate Jackson


Waste opens on 2 October 2008 (previews from 25 September) at the Almeida Theatre, where it continues until 15 November. Will Keen co-stars as Henry Trebell, in a cast that also features Richard Cordery and Peter Eyre. Samuel West directs.