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Opening night – People, Places and Things at Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Jacqui Dubois, Denise Gough and Sally George in People, Places and Things. Photo: Johan Persson Jacqui Dubois, Denise Gough and Sally George in People, Places and Things. Photo: Johan Persson

As Headlong and the National Theatre’s production of People, Places and Things starring Denise Gough opens in the West End, Matthew Hemley joins the opening night celebrations to talk to its creators and stars.

Denise Gough – actor

How are you feeling after opening night?

Denise Gough. Photo: Craig Sugden
Denise Gough. Photo: Craig Sugden

I am exhausted but exhilarated – I don’t think I have ever been part of such a fancy press night where I am at the centre of it. It’s overwhelming, but I am really happy our play opened in the West End. Every night people have been on their feet. Our play is such a special thing and people having that reaction is amazing. I am in a privileged position. I not saying that out of not feeling worthy, but how often does this happen? And there is such good will surrounding it. Everyone is on my team and that is a beautiful thing.

There’s a moment in the play where you address the audience and ask them how you’re doing. Tonight someone shouted back “fantastic”. Were you prepared for that?

Yes, because my mother did it when it ran at the National. I thought if anyone does it tonight it will it be my mother. It was fine. It happened last week. I have a line “Do you want me to go again?” and this woman yelled: “Do it again. Do it again!”

Someone compared your role to a female Hamlet. Do you agree?

It’s better than that. Hamlet is so annoying – he does nothing. This girl does loads of stuff. I think it’s funny when people say it’s like a female Hamlet – a guy sitting around moaning about stuff who doesn’t do anything.

I should point out it was your co-star Barbara Marten who said it…

She doesn’t know what she is talking about. [Turns to writer Duncan Macmillan, laughing] You should sack her!

Duncan Macmillan – writer

Director Jeremy Herrin and playwright Duncan Macmillan. Photo: Craig Sugden
Director Jeremy Herrin and playwright Duncan Macmillan. Photo: Craig Sugden

How does it feel to have the play opening in the West End?

It’s very nice. It’s really great to be part of Rufus Norris’ first season and fantastic to be here at Wyndham’s, which is on a total roll with the plays it’s had recently, so to be coming after those is fantastic. And also to have a show on that is about addicts and people really struggling with a very real thing feels like a very useful thing to be part of. It’s great to bring Jeremy’s production, and Bunny Christie’s design and Denise Gough’s performance to more people. I am very fortunate. She is one of the great actors of our generation and she is giving one of the performances of a lifetime. It’s really astonishing, her performance.

What inspired you to write it?

I was wanting to write a central part for a young actress – lots my age are not getting the parts. But I was also wanting to write about addiction as a way of thinking about living now and the strategies we employ to deal with life and get through life. Addicts are often a punchline or end in death. I felt there was something more compelling and challenging to represent a daily struggle, which is quite boring actually, and never goes away. Theatre craves a conclusion and there isn’t one in recovery – if you do it well you do it every day and forever. For me, it was about trying to find a theatrical form to do that that didn’t feel painfully open ended, but felt conclusive.

Do you think the West End is ready for a play about addiction?

First and foremost it’s entertainment, but hopefully it’s respectful and accurate to what people are going through. There is a huge responsibility to get it right for those people there every night who have gone through it or are going through it – or have people in their lives who are close to it. I am sure the West End is ready and it feels very different now to the West End 10 years ago. Denise’s performance has brought it to the West End and she is the event. The West End is made for these huge performances and that’s what this play is for her.

Jeremy Herrin – director

Do opening nights get any easier for you?

I do get nervous as it’s like my part of the process is over. We have rehearsed it – and I have given it to the actors and it’s up to them. For a play about recovering addiction, I am dealing with my own control issues here. It feels great, but it’s a tentative moment to hand it over.

Were you surprised the play transferred?

I am surprised, as life rarely works out as perfectly as you’d like it to. I always knew there was something fantastic in the play and if we got it right it would speak to a large audience, but we didn’t make any choices based on any commerciality – any choices were about how do we best make this show on its own terms. So I am surprised that what you think is a commercial, hard-nosed cynical culture can pick up a play without a star, about a serious thing. Audiences want really entertaining shows about things and respond to plays that are optimistic and inspiring – we have all that and worked for it and it’s great to be rewarded.

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