She Was About to Quit Acting. Then She Got the Role of a Lifetime.

This was less a gush and more a righteous roar of approval, however, with critics cheering that a secret star of British theater — so chameleonic that she’d gone underrecognized for over a decade — had finally smashed into success. The play, which originated at the National Theater, in a coproduction with Headlong, duly transferred to the West End.


Denise Gough, left, and Barbara Marten in “People, Places & Things,” Duncan MacMillan’s play about an actress struggling with addiction.

Johan Persson

But success came only just in time: If Ms. Gough hadn’t gotten the part, she was going to quit acting altogether. She’d had a year without any work, and was broke.

Over a recent lunch in a West London brasserie where she makes a joke of ostentatiously ordering lobster pasta, she’s able to laugh at how far she’s come. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “It’s completely nuts.”

Ms. Gough (it rhymes with cough), who’s lived in London since she was a teenager, is great company, her chat as quick and flashing as those very blue eyes. She clearly doesn’t suffer fools, and enjoys pricking actorly pretensions. (“I like to shout ‘Macbeth’ a lot.”) Yet beneath the expletive-riddled sarcasm dwells a spiritual belief that the universe is unfolding as it should; she rejected Catholicism, but retains some “faith in a higher power — something very personal to me.”

So when it came to Emma, she had a sense that it was meant to be. “People will laugh, but I feel like the characters find me,” she said. “The ones I’m supposed to play, I’m going to play.”

She still busted a gut to get it, however, even snorting a line of icing sugar when auditioning. “It was one of those mythic auditions,”…

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