Entertainment & Arts

Would-be cleaner Denise Gough reprises polished performance

Denise Gough (Emma) Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption Denise Gough as Emma in People, Places and Things

Denise Gough's role as a recovering addict in the National Theatre's People, Places and Things was one of the theatrical highlights of 2015. As the play transfers to the West End, audiences have another chance to see the performance that could win her an Olivier award next month.

What a difference a year makes.

At the beginning of 2015, Denise Gough almost quit acting. She couldn't make ends meet.

"I had a year out of work before this job," explains the Irish actress. "I applied to be a cleaner this time last year. That's not joking. That's the truth for many jobbing actors and actresses.

"It would be lovely if we were all in a position to say it's vulgar to talk about money, but most of us have to talk about it because we can't pay our rent when we are out of work."

As things turned out, Gough didn't get the cleaning job. But she did land the lead role in Duncan Macmillan's new play, People, Places and Things. Her performance was described as "career-changing", "Class-A" and "emotionally shattering".

Directed by Jeremy Herrin, the play was a sellout at the National's Dorfman Theatre last year. It begins with Gough's character Emma having a meltdown during a production of Chekhov's The Seagull. Soon she's in rehab and on a 12-step programme to tackle her addiction to drink and drugs.

Gough won the Critics' Circle best actress award for the role in January and was nominated in the same category at last year's Evening Standard theatre awards, where she was beaten by Nicole Kidman for her role in Photograph 51.

Gough and Kidman go head to head again at the Olivier awards on 3 April in a best actress field that also includes Gemma Arterton (Nell Gwynn), Janet McTeer (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and Lia Williams (Oresteia).

People, Places and Things has four Olivier nominations in total - including best new play.

Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption People, Places and Things has four nominations at this year's Olivier Awards

So how "career-changing" has it been for Gough?

"What this has done has changed the level that I'm at," she says. "I had never worked at the National before and now I can talk about projects that I want to do."

Also important to her is the type of role it is. "This character is indicative of the kind of parts we need for women on stage - and on film and TV. A woman that is not an appendage to a man.

"After a while it gets tiresome falling in love over and over on stage. This part for me is such a fantastic addition to the canon of parts that will now be available for young women to play."

Gough leans in, speaking quickly as she warms to her theme. "A young guy came up to me about a month after our play finished [at the National]. He said he went to see our play and the day after he went to his first AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting and he's been clean and sober since.

"I know that we're always talking about theatre having the power to change lives, but it really does. I'm proud to be part of something where I'm saying something more than, 'Aren't I pretty in a dress?' I'm not just wafting around the stage."

She pauses, and then adds with a smile: "Although I will be wafting around the stage in other productions - just not this one."

Gough is a supporter of the 50/50 by 2018 campaign which wants to see women represented on screen, in television and theatre in equal numbers to men.

"We are 50% of the population and yet in film less than a third of the speaking characters are female. That has to change. I think of my niece. I want her to watch things and be able to go to the theatre and see herself on stage.

"The conversation is starting and it needs to keep going. The more represented we are the more we can address the gender pay gap."

Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption The play begins with Gough's character Emma having a stage meltdown during a production of Chekhov's The Seagull

In 2014, Gough played Julia alongside Gemma Arterton in The Duchess of Malfi at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe. Her previous London theatre credits include Jesus Hopped the A Train, Six Characters in Search of an Author and As You Like It.

She won the Critics' Circle Award in 2012 for most promising newcomer for Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith.

"I said in my speech at the time I'd been around for about 12 years!" recalls Gough.

"I have been thinking about that a lot. If that award had happened when I was a newcomer at 23 I don't think I'd have been ready for any of that. I'm having a tiny taste of attention around my work since last year. I don't know how really young people deal with that.

"I'm very glad to be mid-30s and a bit more grounded. It's very seductive and you can become a bit of an arse if you're not careful."

She offers an anecdote about why she'll resist the trappings of fame. "I went home recently and a magazine on which I'm the front cover was in the bidet in my parents' bathroom.

"Not on it - in it! That is why I will never forget where I've come from."

People, Places and Things opens at Wyndham's Theatre on Wednesday and is booking until 18 June.

Related Topics

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites