Denise Gough on returning to 'People, Places & Things' in the West End

Double Olivier Award winner Denise Gough reflects on her return to Duncan Macmillan’s play about addiction and recovery, which ignited her stage career in 2015.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

Addiction and the long, challenging road to recovery are at the heart of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things, but Denise Gough, the show’s star, insists the play isn’t as bleak as it sounds.

“You don’t understand how much fun it is. I’m surrounded by love. I mean, we’re not all skipping through the poppy fields all the time,” she says, jokily adding “the opium poppy fields” under her breath, “but it’s very loving and joyful and everybody knows we’re doing something that has meaning for people.”

Almost nine years ago at the National Theatre, Gough originated the career-defining role of Emma, an actress and addict who checks herself into rehab after breaking down on stage. A West End transfer quickly followed in 2016, before a stint off-Broadway at St Ann’s Warehouse in 2017. The critical praise was unanimous and she earned a Best Actress Olivier Award. Gough’s star was rising. So why, after so much success, does she want to return to the part?

“It’s not about the milestones,” she says, with typical directness. “It’s about doing the play. I want to be back on stage. I want to be connected to something, and I couldn’t find anything else that would do that.”

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Gough speaks passionately about theatre and how it has changed her life, because unlike many in the industry, she wasn’t given a helping hand when she broke into acting. Leaving her home in County Clare at just 15, with a boyfriend, she found herself surviving alone in London at 16. She was homeless for a while, and has talked about the way acting provided hope in her darkest moments.

There are obvious parallels with her character Emma, an actress whose addiction is triggered by the people, places, and things referenced in the title of Macmillan’s play. Emma similarly speaks of wanting to escape the harsh edges of the real world – and does so with a cocktail of alcohol and drugs. Gough acknowledges the role is personal because of “my own history”.

“I’m sober now – 17 years. I know what it’s like to want to switch everything off. I know what it’s like to need something to help me stay alive,” she says.

She eventually landed a full grant to Wandsworth’s Academy of Live and Recorded Arts and started to build her reputation on the London stage in her twenties, with parts in Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats at Wyndham’s Theatre in 2004 and O Go My Man at the Royal Court in 2006. She has grafted to get to where she is and reflects that “I became somebody who went from begging outside theatres, to then being in the theatre – you can’t argue with that.”

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Portraying the role is certainly no easy task, and our critic wrote of her performance in 2016: “Here’s acting so raw, so tangible, so felt, so passionate, so wounded yet alive, so down but never out, that it thrills and astonishes.” Gough’s character slurs and staggers, hoovering up lines. At one point in director Jeremy Herrin’s trippy production, multiple Emmas storm the stage, as her reality becomes fractured and distorted.

Gough is thrilled to be reunited with Herrin for the show’s return at the Trafalgar Theatre: “We have a mostly new cast and I was scared about that, because I miss my original people. But we had to think, how do we do this play again? Watching Jeremy integrate this cast... it’s just so beautiful the way he speaks to people.”

She explains that a benefit of returning to the play after so many years is that “we have such a deeper language around addiction”. The show is working again with The Priory’s medical director Dr Neil Brener who, Gough says, believes now is a great time to bring back the production, when there is more understanding about the link between trauma and addiction.

“I have a way deeper understanding of why Emma might do the things that she does [...] Because we didn’t have access then to [the information] we have access to now,” she says.

Between the play’s run off-Broadway and today, Gough has made a foray into the TV and film worlds, playing steely, ambitious Imperial Officer Dedra in the Star Wars prequel Andor, a show hailed for its eerie political resonance with the modern day. She also starred opposite Keira Knightley in the 2018 film Colette and Emily Watson in the mini-series Too Close.

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While she appreciates what the industry has done for her, in particular “beautiful Star Wars”, which allowed Gough to buy her home in Hackney, it is clear that theatre remains her true passion. On revisiting Emma, she says “I’m selfishly doing it to put myself back together after seven years of television.”

Gough delves into some of her frustrations. “With TV, a lot of the time you don’t even get a script until the day. Whereas when you work in the theatre, you’re working on scripts that sometimes have been interrogated over the course of 100 years. They’ve been through so many people that you can rely on the writing.”

Gough has been outspoken on a number of political and social subjects, from immigration to the representation of women in drama, and once dubbed herself the “Jeremy Corbyn of acting.” For today’s agenda, she wishes to talk about the need to improve conditions for those working behind the scenes, as well as those on screen.

“On TV, what I’ve really noticed is that crews are treated pretty badly most of the time,” she says. “The only people who can protect the crew on a set are number one and two on the call sheet. And so I take it very seriously when I am in that position, which can be hard because you have to be a disruptor. That can be exhausting when you’re working 15-hour days.”

She continues, “You want to effect change in whatever way you can,” and references the Instagram account @britcrewstories, which gives people working behind the scenes a chance to tell their stories. Gough recently downloaded Instagram, after taking herself off the apps a few years ago.

“I thought, ‘I can go on social media, and I can go and see plays that I love, which I can elevate with my platform.’ But it really sucks you in, doesn’t it? And I want to be responding to all these racist bastards, as well.”

She is referring, specifically, to the racist abuse suffered by Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, who has been cast opposite Tom Holland in Jamie Lloyd’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet, which opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre this month.

People Places and Things LT 1200 Johan Persson

Gough’s knotty relationship with social media echoes her character Emma’s struggle with the artifice of the online world. Her speech about the difficulty of getting through her day has been slightly updated in this returning production, and Gough quotes: “The constant news alerts, the opinions about everything. Pictures of dead children, which are pictures of dead children next to adverts for skincare. The ethical gymnastics it takes just to pretend everything is normal.”

Not everything is quite so grim, however. Gough is encouraged to see more complex parts given to women, such as Jodie Comer’s turn in Prima Facie, which shows how a barrister’s opinion of the legal system changes after she is sexually assaulted. This particularly resonated with Gough because of her own experiences. “I saw it as one of the one in three [women who have been sexually assaulted]. Comer showed up like there was nothing about her performance that was about a show. I really relate to that. She wasn’t doing it to win awards. She knew how important that part was.”

Gough feels a similar responsibility with Emma, and returns to discussing her character like an invisible string ties them together: “When I read People, Places & Things, I knew how important it was for me to play the truth.”

But how do you follow a role such as this, and what comes next? She won’t be reprising her turn as Harper in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, for which she earned an Olivier Award and Tony nomination – “That kind of writing does not fuck around. It was hard, but it wasn’t enjoyable.” However, she would love to work with writer and director Robert Icke, or Comer. She maintains that “the right things find me”, but she lets slip that her long- term plan is to play Medea in Greece in Greek. One thing is for certain: People, Places & Things won’t be Gough’s final challenge.

People, Places & Things is at Trafalgar Theatre from 3 May. Book tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Denise Gough. (Photo by Michael Wharley, hair and make-up by Becca Lymbourides). Gough in Andor. (Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd) Gough in People, Places & Things in 2016. (Photo by Johan Persson)

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