Sunday, July 14

People Places & Things – Trafalgar Theatre

I’d heard the premise before going to see this. I knew it was about an actress with an addiction problem going to rehab, to get the paper that lets her get back to work. Yet it was much more than this – an intensive journey, from the excruciating detox to all the mental anguish, conceptualisation, denial, and the hopeful, desperate, desire to get better. It was a truly cathartic watch.

Denise Gough’s characterisation was phenomenal, we saw all the nooks and crannies of this complex woman. Her visceral performance brought Emma’s story to life, and made the meta moments, the reminders that we are watching actors, even more trippy because her character was so embodied and real. There was a moment in the first scene where the back of the stage is ripped away, and throughout the drama, this recurs, metaphorically speaking. Duncan Macmillan has written this in such a clever, crafted manner – we are intrigued and drawn into Emma’s character, her relationships but at the same time, it is clear we are following a thread that is bigger than her – the idea of coping, of dealing with life, of getting better.

Photo: Marc Brenner

A titillating first act with all the chaos and emotional rollercoaster of recovery in the rehabilitation centre is followed by a sobering, more clunky second act. As we see Emma’s childhood bedroom fall into place from above her, a gnarly scene between her and her parents plays out, creating conflicting empathy for both sides. In the group sessions in rehab, there is an exercise where the participants use role-play to imagine a challenging future scenario and rehearse it. I like the way the play covers coping through imagination and how using it to manage life can be helpful but also highlights how Emma avoids reality through acting. Strong, slick performances from the rest of the cast created the world of the rehab centre and painted the stories beyond them.

The play could be misconstrued as being pretentious. I think this would be overlooking the core of what the play is addressing – it’s a stark light on the overwhelm, the expanse of life, and how to navigate this world that rarely gives us a rehearsal. Yes, Emma philosophises and over-conceptualises, but this should not be taken as the voice of the play. also, wavers between the poetic nihilism of an artist and the obscured perception of an addict, occasionally touching truth but also her ingrained beliefs. I didn’t quite get the last speech, empty words of optimism for a part she was auditioning for? I think the ending could have been a bit stronger, as the cutting as the next actress was about to speak felt a bit off.

Jeremy Herrin’s direction brought sizzling tension to outright mayhem in a heartbeat and carved out the ebbs and flows in Emma’s recovery. I loved the creepy horror of the multiple Emma’s popping out but thought it could have been integrated into the story a bit better – one occurrence was very strong with all the different Emma’s retching and scratching. The trippy visual and lighting effects (James Farncombe, Tom Gibbons, Matthew Herbert, Andrzej Goulding) were jarring and exhilarating, and put the audience inside an addict’s head, feeling the discomfort of quiet after the high of the music stops.

There is plenty to chew on. Gough’s freakishly real character and Macmillan’s potent script make the whole thing feel like drama therapy for the audience as well.

Playing until 10th August, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/people-places-and-things/

Reviewer: Riana Howarth

Reviewed: 18th May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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