There is no danger of Kacey Ainsworth losing touch with reality when she is playing a role. The actress is best known for playing abused wife Little Mo in EastEnders for five years, but the mother of two credits her solid home life with balancing out the emotional toll that comes with such a role. “You can’t brood over it when you’ve got someone poking a paintbrush up your nose,” she laughs.
But Ainsworth should hope her five-year-old daughter Blossom will be able to put reality aside for a couple of hours when she comes to see her mother in Carrie’s War, the stage adaptation of Nina Bawden’s famous children’s novel, at the Apollo theatre this summer. “It’s lovely that I know this is something that my daughter can come to and will be enthralled by,” says Ainsworth. “I think she will definitely get it. Because of the story, more than anything else; it’s such a good story.”
It is Ainsworth’s first major stage role for some time, her career of late having comprised more television work than theatre. But shortly after the birth of Blossom in 2004, followed by son Elwood, now 18 months old, Ainsworth found filming schedules to be incompatible with child-raising and took a break from work “because I wanted to actually see my children”. However, the parent-friendly evening schedule of theatre, along with the “brilliant adaptation” of Bawden’s novel by Emma Reeves, has tempted the actress back to work and to the Apollo, where she stars alongside co-stars Prunella Scales, Sarah Edwardson and Sion Tudor Owen.
The wartime story, a children’s favourite since its publication in 1973, is set in the valleys of South Wales where evacuees Carrie and her younger brother Nick are taken in by Mr Evans and his sister Lou, Ainsworth’s character, during World War Two. “You think it’s about war and evacuees and actually it’s about so much more,” says Ainsworth. “There’s other strands to it: it’s a thriller, it’s a mystery, it’s historical and it’s a great story.”
The tale has a personal resonance for the actress as her late father, like Bawden, was an evacuee, though he found himself sent to Bedfordshire rather than Wales. “It was something that he talked to me a lot about, just coincidentally, and he had a wonderful time. The stats are something like 80 per cent of children found it to be an experience that they were glad they had, and I think obviously there was a section that didn’t have as great a time, but he was one of the lucky ones because he absolutely adored it and it gave him a sense of something else out there other than where he came from, which was a very poor background in Paddington.”
“You think it’s about war and evacuees and actually it’s about so much more”
The community spirit and selflessness evident in people’s actions during that period is something we can learn from today, feels Ainsworth. “Obviously we have wars going on now but they seem to be so far removed from us, and this is something that I think is worthwhile discovering or rediscovering, especially for the generation that we are now, that a lot of people did a lot of things in that war to be as one. You know, people opening their homes up to other people’s children and looking after them or trying to look after them as well as if they were their own children. I think that’s an amazing thing to do, I’m not sure if it would happen now.”
Ainsworth’s character, Auntie Lou, is a kindly but timid person, which is hardly a departure from the role for which the actress is best known, Little Mo, who was probably the meekest character in the history of EastEnders until she finally summoned the courage to stand up to her abusive husband. Though Ainsworth admits “I’m sure I wouldn’t have been called in for Carrie’s War if I hadn’t done EastEnders”, her appearance in the wartime drama is more than just typecasting of a well known soap actress. Though television work has dominated her CV in the past decade, Ainsworth’s career is founded on theatre and began at the tender age of nine when she appeared in the musical Annie in the West End in 1978. “Obviously once I’d worked in the theatre then the whole world opens up to you, you feel part of that world and therefore you carry on being part of it,” she says.
After finishing school in Hertfordshire, Ainsworth went to London’s Central School of Speech and Drama and her adult theatrical career took off shortly after, in a way she could not have predicted, when she was cast by director Ian Rickson opposite Ray Winstone in Joe Penhall’s second play Pale Horse at the Royal Court in 1995. “These were such huge things, stuff that I had written down in the hope that one day in my whole career I would achieve that, and this was my first shot at it,” says Ainsworth. “That was quite an incredible thing working at the Royal Court for the first job out.”
The role got her known for doing new work and she went on to work again at the Royal Court in Martin Crimp’s Attempts On Her Life and in several productions at the National Theatre including Hanif Kureishi’s Sleep With Me. “I suppose that’s what sticks out to me, is the doors that it opened just with one part.”
It was, she says, an “amazing” period in her life and in theatre. “There was kind of a Britpop vibe going on so there were a lot of new plays and playwrights, people who now are in the forefront of things, like Joe Penhall and David Eldridge and Abi Morgan and I did lots of workshops and so many new plays. I loved that more than anything else, because it’s not about you, it’s about the play, and it was just such fun. I had a blast.”
It was her experience of workshopping new plays that led to Ainsworth being seen for EastEnders, a three-month process in which the producers put together the Slater family, which also included Jessie Wallace, Elaine Lordan and Michelle Ryan. Perhaps more surprisingly, she also attributes her work with Mike Leigh on his 1999 film Topsy Turvy to helping her move into soapland. The improvisation that the director asks of his actors lent itself well to EastEnders, says Ainsworth. “You would be surprised how many people have done stuff with Mike and have ended up in EastEnders and I think a lot of that is to do with the fact that what Mike requires is what we call ‘real people acting’ so there’s no scenes and joins and it’s very real and truthful, and obviously that’s what you need for a soap, because it’s on so quickly you haven’t got time to do very detailed character work and so therefore you have to be very instant in your choices and that’s what Mike requires, he likes you to be spontaneous.”
“That was quite an incredible thing working at the Royal Court for the first job out”
The Slater family became hugely popular in the soap, their exploits leading to some explosive storylines and a particularly strong period for the programme. “It’s always a team effort,” says Ainsworth, crediting the hard work of the producers who put them together. “We are immensely proud. I still speak to Elaine and Michelle because they are life long friendships. My partner thinks of Michelle as my little sister, which is bizarre, but he does. He wants to make sure she’s alright, because she was so young. He’s like, ‘ooh she’s over there in Hollywood. Is she alright?’ It’s funny how you do become family anyway.”
Ainsworth loved the experience so much she stayed for five years.”I thought it was just wonderful, doing it every single day, it was like being back at drama school, it was fantastic. But it is long and hard and you have to put a lot of work and effort into it but the rewards are good too so there’s no complaining really.”
However she knew the tough schedule would be hard to juggle with a newborn and when she fell pregnant with Blossom she told the producers she wished to leave. An agreement was reached that she would come back after maternity leave so that her character could be written out properly. “And it was a struggle after she was born, it was a definite struggle. So that definitely reinforced my feeling that it wasn’t meant to work when my children were little,” says Ainsworth, though she has dipped her toe back into television in the three years since she left the soap, with a role in police series Holby Blue, written by former EastEnders storyline consultant Tony Jordan.
Such is the power of soapload that she may never leave Little Mo behind completely. Not that she minds. “I think it’s quite amazing to have a character that sticks in people’s minds. I would never do that down and I don’t think Pru [Scales] would with Sybil [her character in Fawlty Towers]. We all look at those kind of characters and go how amazing that something was created that sticks in people’s minds for longer than five minutes. In a culture where people are turning over all the time.”
But at this stage in her life it is theatre, rather than television, that is proving the draw to Ainsworth. “I like working but I like work that does fit round my family at the moment,” she says. In Carrie’s War, Ainsworth has found a job that enables her to do just that; caring for two evacuated young children every evening means she can spend all day caring for her own.