It’s only April and I think I’ve already found my favourite play of 2016. Technically I found it in March, but it was so good I had to see it a second time. It’s intense, funny, traumatic, beautiful, terrifying, poignant and inspiring – and Denise Gough has more than earned the accolade of Best Actress in the 2016 Olivier Awards.
People, Places and Things takes us into the messy world of rehab, as Emma (Denise Gough), and a selection of other recovering addicts, work through the minefield of physical withdrawl, and the subsequent therapy sessions as they battle the psychological demons which always lead them back to substance abuse: the people, places and things they associate with using.
Denise Gough is absolutely magnetic as Emma: from the minute she ricochets into reception, high as a kite, slurring expletives into her phone, and expecting a quick fix to her problems, she invites us into the unfiltered wreckage of “I can quit anytime I like.” She’s an almost permanent fixture on stage in a role which seems equally draining and exhilarating, and Duncan Macmillan’s perspicacious writing more than passes the Bechdel Test. (Take note, playwrights: THIS is how you write good roles for women).
Bunny Christie has created yet another stunning and versatile set – staged in traverse with some audience seated on the stage, the tiled walls feel very clinical, compounded by the hallucinatory graphics as they start to crack and float away during certain scenes. Backed up by a pounding soundtrack from Matthew Herbert, stunning sound design by Tom Gibbons, and vivid lighting by James Farncombe – this is every bit another success by Headlong, to rival their previous work on 1984 and The Nether.
She is backed up by a tight ensemble cast who play roles including medical staff and fellow service users in various stages of recovery (and relapse). The lucid scenes of withdrawl with multiple Emmas staggering, pacing and twitching about the stage are quietly harrowing. Barbara Marten plays a selection of calm and withering professionals who, according to Emma, “look just like my mother”. Her offbeat sense of humour helps to temper some of the seriousness of the situation, offering Emma a ‘stool sample to eat’, before joyfully announcing “it’s FALAFEL!” But her appearance in the final scene adds a real thump of poignancy, showing us the enormity of Emma’s wayward past.
Jeremy Herrin’s directing helps us to navigate through a potentially confusing narrative of the things that Emma perceives, both real and imaginary. The group therapy sessions present snapshots of the lives of other addicts, the familiar patterns of behaviour, and Emma’s reluctance to engage with the process. Gough delivers several monologues with real punch: how exactly are you supposed to live sober when the world around you is so screwed, that drink and drugs are the only things that make it tolerable? But towards the end, we are all rewarded with the fruits of her hard work and honesty, as she practises her apology to her parents – a tender and moving piece of vulnerability.
Theatre is my addiction. And I am craving another hit of People, Places and Things.
A HUGE thank you to Seat Plan for the tickets!
‘People, Places and Things’ is playing until Saturday 18th June 2016 at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA. Contains strong language, strobe-like lighting effects and short complete blackouts in the auditorium. Suitable for ages 15+. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.peopleplacesthingsonstage.com/