Olivier-winning Denise Gough: ‘Actresses play either virgins or whores’

Denise Gough as Emma in People Places and Things

Denise Gough as Emma in People Places and Things - Credit: Archant

Hackney-based Denise Gough was ready to quit acting after a year of rejection but then she landed a part as recovering addict Emma and the awards started rolling in. The West End star tells Bridget Galton why it’s only the icing sugar that will go to her head.

Denise Gough may have just elbowed Nicole Kidman aside to scoop the best actress Olivier, but a year ago she was considering quitting the business.

After a year of “being rejected in so many horrible, awful ways,” the 35-year-old was on her uppers and applying for cleaning jobs.

Luckily the Hackney-based actress landed a part that was a brilliant fit for her talents and a gut-wrenchingly memorable night at the theatre.

Small wonder that she’ll “never tire” of talking about recovering addict Emma in Duncan Macmillan’s People Places and Things.

“I knew it was a great play, that was obvious, but I didn’t know that everyone else would think that,” says Gough whose herculean efforts to secure the role included snorting icing sugar in the audition “Ha straight to the brain!”

Her turn as the pathologically unreliable actress in flight from reality has won as many plaudits since transferring from the National Theatre to Wyndham’s.

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Now the actress whose aforementioned rejections included being ‘not pretty enough’, and ‘too scary’ is enjoying her well deserved moment in the spotlight; without forgetting how lucky she is.

“I really wanted the part, I couldn’t believe someone had written such truth. There’s one speech about acting, specifically what it’s like to be a woman in our industry, that I thought ‘how do you know how we feel?

“To play a woman with such complexity, for a man to understand that we are living a very big life as women… that doesn’t get represented on stage a lot.

“We’re either virgins or whores, she’s neither, she’s just a f***ing human being and it’s a total joy to play her.”

The play opens with Emma disastrously slurring her way through Chekhov’s The Seagull, then chaotically checking into rehab where she proceeds to lie about her past, while furiously resisting group therapy and AA’s mantra of submitting to a higher power.

As she goes cold turkey, her cynicism gives way to a grope towards redemption – even as the final bruising confrontation with her parents sets her journey into the context of her past behaviour.

It is partly Gough’s physically draining total dedication to the role that has won such praise.

“Maybe the audience like seeing someone on stage who is completely committed,” she muses.

“I’ve never understood the method but I do disappear for a bit. She takes over for those two hours but I never forget that it’s theatre.”

It’s also a searingly honest look at an addict’s journey that 12 steppers have identified with.

“It tells the truth this play, about how addiction ravages through people’s lives in the most awful way. How people want you out of your lives because you behave so badly, it isolates you.

“So often you see plays that try to chocolate box addiction. That’s why she’s an addict, now she gets clean, isn’t it wonderful? I’ve seen plays where I’ve wanted to get up on stage and light a crack pipe. This play doesn’t try to explain it or tell you why it affects some people and not others. It’s just a look at this character’s life and says do you relate? We all have the personality to want to escape off into another world.”

Ironically to have the energy to play someone who’s falling apart, Gough must remain sober and healthy during the run.

“Anyone who did brilliant work when they were addicts did so in spite of it not because of it. I don’t do any of that because I am better when I show up. On this show I couldn’t be going out and getting hammered.”

While Emma questions the religious-based AA programme Gough won’t hear a word against it.

“Lack of self-esteem is the fire of addiction and AA encourages self acceptance and love. People get funny about the word God - I am a recovering Catholic myself – but it’s not about religion it’s about spiritually opening up your life to something very personal, relinquishing control. I have seen it work too many times to want to question it. For an addict the substance is the solution not the problem, the problem is f***ing reality.”

As a “crazy wayward teen” Gough came to London from Ireland at 16 where she lived in penury before ganing a scholarship to drama school.

It must have horribly worried her parents, but as number 7 of 11 children she laughs that she was always so far removed from parental attention it’s no surprise she chose a job where “people have to shut up until I finish talking then they have to clap.”

Now although she feels she’s “in the gang” she’s not interested in running off to Hollywood. In fact there’s another job lined up at the NT later this year.

“London has given me everything,” she adds. “I am so grateful to this country I came here on a boat when I was 16 as an immigrant and being a stage actress has always been my life’s ambition. I’ve never been in a situation before of knowing what I was going to do next and it’s the greatest feeling. It’s happening right now. I am having the time of my life.”