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Emma Cunniffe

Published 17 April 2008

Losing Louis, currently playing at the Trafalgar, is a comedy about family, secrets and relationships. Set at the funeral of the eponymous Louis, a family is brought together in grief to tell an amusing and touching tale. With scenes set in both the past and the present, Emma Cunniffe plays Bobbie, the wife of the deceased Louis, but only while he was still alive… in the past. Confused? Matthew Amer talked to Cunniffe to clarify the situation…

It is a very odd sensation to sit in the auditorium of a completely deserted theatre. It is even stranger to walk through the back of the stage into a bedroom, complete with double bed, pink bed spread and a large portrait overseeing proceedings. The rather intimate Trafalgar theatre looks cavernous from the stage and the only voices to be heard are our own. Yet even with the all-encompassing silence, Emma Cunniffe’s voice is often swallowed up by the nothingness, such is the softness of her speech.

Losing Louis, in which Cunniffe stars, is the second play by Simon Mendes da Costa. It follows both the events at Louis’ funeral, and those from earlier in his tumultuous life. The past happenings are played out by a crop of young actors, including Cunniffe, Jason Durr and Anita Briem, while the present sees Alison Steadman, Lynda Bellingham, Brian Protheroe and David Horovitch suffering the consequences of Louis’ previous actions.

"It’s lovely to be a part of something that’s giving a lot of pleasure."

Though the premise is riddled with tragedy and unhappiness, from infidelity to death, the play is actually a comedy, finding humour in the most grief-stricken of situations. Cunniffe explains, “One minute the audience are really laughing and the next they’re on a different tack. What is so lovely about the play is that it’s not heavy going; it’s peppered with that sadness, but it’s mainly really funny and touching”.

As a general rule, actors in interviews will say good things about their productions. Appearing less than enthusiastic would probably be as good for their careers as slapping Nicholas Hytner or Trevor Nunn in the face with a particularly wet and smelly haddock. When Cunniffe talks enthusiastically about Losing Louis, though, there is a real ring to her voice that smacks of sincerity. Performing in the play itself is proving an enjoyable experience – “It’s so lovely to be a part of something that’s giving a lot of pleasure” – but it is when talking about her character that her emotions really come to the surface. Bobbie, Cunniffe’s character, married above her class when she wed Louis. He is well educated, whereas she is not; he is also her financial support. When he engages in extra-marital relations with her best friend, Bobbie sees all this slipping away. But more than that, “She really loves him. It’s sad.” As Cunniffe describes Bobbie, her voice begins to quiver and her eyes water a little; not a lot, but enough to see that her character really has touched her.

It is not that she sees a lot of herself in Bobbie; in fact, she does not see many similarities at all. The reason for her empathy is down to the writing of Simon Mendes da Costa. This is only his second staged production. His first, Table For One, was produced at the Hen and Chickens theatre, Islington. The jump from fringe to West End audiences can be a tricky one to make, yet da Costa has taken it in his stride. Cunniffe is a big fan of his work. “I think he’s managed to get a brilliant blend of comedy and drama. It’s so touching; you have an empathy with all the characters. Every character is really rounded; you feel like a complete person, because they’re all a contradiction of good and bad.”

"I actually went right up in a harness!"

It also helps that Cunniffe has a particular love of new writing. The chance to be part of something fresh, the very first time it has ever been seen, is relished by the bright-eyed actress, who gets “a real kick out of it.” One of her favourite venues is West London’s Bush theatre, one of London’s most respected new writing venues, where she performed in Caravan in 1997. “I think it is one of the most exciting places to work. I love that intimacy.”

Unlike most normal people, Cunniffe is a big fan of putting in a little extra, out-of-hours, work. “It depends on the nature of the part and the project as to how much research I do, but that’s one of the things I really enjoy.” For her role in BBC drama The Whistle-Blower, as a police officer looking after a family in a witness protection scheme, Cunniffe took her life into her own hands, learning how to use live firearms. Her daring escapades took on a loftier feel when, for Channel 4 film Underground, Cunniffe took to the trees; “I actually went right up into the tree in a harness… 16 ft up! That was exciting”.

Cunniffe’s CV is remarkably full for someone so young. Packed with everything from film, through television, to theatre, it tells the tale of someone who has worked very hard since graduating from the Webber Douglas Academy. Though there is a lot of theatre work there, most of it has been away from the bright lights of London, in regional productions. The option to work in regional venues is a perk Cunniffe delights in, as it takes her to places she may never otherwise have seen. “Some parts of the country are beautiful, and you get a chance to explore them when you go away. I also love seeing the audiences’ different reactions in different places, but I must admit, it’s lovely doing a play in London where I can go home every night as well.”

It was for one of her regional works – English Touring Theatre’s The Master Builder, in which she starred with Timothy West – that Cunniffe won her first award; a TMA Award for Best Supporting Actress. Though she wasn’t expecting the accolade, it came as a nice surprise. “I just had this letter pop through the post saying ‘you’ve been nominated for an award’. I went along and I’d won it!” Though matter of fact about the theatrical gong, after a little cajoling Cunniffe does admit that it is “very nice to be noticed.”

"I keep checking that I’m doing it for the right reasons. I think I am."

If it is not the glamorous party invitations, glittering award ceremonies and generally luxurious lifestyle that every actor indulges in that motivates Cunniffe, what exactly is it that makes her want to get on stage each night and entertain? “I think I like the fact that it’s never the same; that it changes all the time. It makes you think, it makes you work hard, and I like the feeling that you’re working hard.” Cunniffe also relishes the ‘unknown’ aspect of an actor’s life; the not knowing what will come next. She will be performing in Losing Louis until mid-June, but at the moment has no idea what will happen then. It is a blank page, full of possibilities, just waiting to be written. However, there will be time to fit in a “proper beach holiday”, a luxury that Cunniffe’s phenomenal work rate hasn’t afforded her lately.

A Having giggled considerably about her spectacular array of accents – the BBC lists an impressive collection of linguistic lilts to which Cunniffe can turn her versatile vocal chords – Cunniffe becomes very serious when discussing the motivation behind working as a professional actress. The current cult of celebrity has changed the perception of the trade; “It’s not just about ‘I love being an actress because of all the things that come with it’, you have to have your heart really in it. I keep checking that I’m doing it for the right reasons. I think I am”.

As long as those reasons remain right, Cunniffe will continue to ply her trade on the stage. As for the immediate future, following the sun, sea and sand-based break, Cunniffe is optimistically unsure of what work will come her way. “Hopefully nothing with a Welsh accent; that’s not one of my better ones!”

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