SOME actors might be daunted by the prospect of making their debut at the National Theatre — especially when it’s their face on all the posters. But not Sarah Gordy, the star of hit play Jellyfish, which comes to the South Bank tonight following a run at west London’s Bush Theatre last year. She never gets nervous on stage — and that’s because she says she’s not really acting. Instead, she is simply ‘living’ as her character on stage.
When she’s in a production, she says, ‘half of my brain will be the character, and the other half is going back to my real life’.
Over two decades, she has racked up an impressive roster of TV and theatre credits; made more remarkable — given the entertainment industry’s historically unenlightened attitudes to disability — by the fact that she has Down’s syndrome.
A committed campaigner for Mencap, last year she received an MBE for her services to the arts and people with disabilities. ‘When they delivered the letter, I read it and I was crying and my mum cried with me,’ recalls Sarah.
Among Sarah’s biggest fans has been Jellyfish playwright Ben Weatherill — it was because he was familiar with her work that he was inspired to write a play for her. An affecting comedy-drama, it tells the story of Kelly, a young woman from Skegness negotiating two tricky relationships, with her non-disabled boyfriend and her overbearing mum, Agnes. Sarah says she’s having a ball playing Kelly, not least ‘because she gets to say swear words’, she smiles. ‘It gives her that oomph.’
Kelly is ‘strong and very witty and funny’, Sarah expands. ‘There is one thing that Kelly and I have in common, which is our sense of humour, but our lives are different because in mine there are more opportunities which Kelly has not had.’
Sarah has also benefited from having a mum, Jane, who unlike Agnes, has always encouraged her daughter to take risks. ‘I have enjoyed going off the high diving board in my life and Sarah is like me in that way,’ remarks Jane.
Sarah’s interest in performing goes back to messing around with her sister as a little girl — ‘we would paint masks and perform in them to entertain the family at Christmas’ — and she got involved in school plays. But her route into professional acting came by chance, when the ITV drama Peak Practice was looking for someone to play a child with Down’s syndrome and her name was suggested by a theatre group near where she lives on the south coast. Since then, she has had significant parts in Call The Midwife, Upstairs, Downstairs and Strike, and performed at Manchester’s Royal Exchange and Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, among others.
Jane works closely with her daughter to help her prepare for roles, she says. ‘We spend hours and hours discussing: how is the character like me? How is this character different? How do I react to the other characters? How do the other characters see me?’
Sarah counts Judi Dench and the late Bob Hoskins among her acting role models. After Jellyfish, Sarah has another plum TV role coming up, having joined the cast of BBC1’s The A Word for its third series. In general, she thinks the representation of people with Down’s syndrome on stage and screen is getting better, with more complex roles being written — but, as her mum says, Sarah herself can take some credit for that.
‘When Sarah started, for years it was we need ‘‘a Down’s syndrome’’ — not a woman or a girl, just a ‘‘Down’s syndrome’’ and basically people emoted around them. But then writers would see, ‘‘Ah there’s a new ingredient with having an actor like Sarah, we can write a complex character because she can carry it.”’
As Sarah emphasises, the parts she plays are ‘not about Down’s syndrome. They are about the person behind it. We are all individuals.’
As for the future? Sarah says her dream would be to work with Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. But above and beyond personal ambitions, she hopes her work can continue to enlighten. ‘We need to celebrate difference. And it’s very important to get that out there as much as possible.’
■ Jellyfish is at the National Theatre until July 16, nationaltheatre.org.uk