People, Places and Things

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

People, Places and Things is a play about rehab, powerful in its manipulation. As well as being search words on Facebook,  people, places and things are all triggers for recovering addicts – old friends, haunts, pubs, parties, situations and surroundings which all require practice, rehearsal to return to and deal with sober, post therapy.
As an actress Emma is well used to rehearsal. To circles of chairs where people introduce themselves and perform. It seems hard for her to reconcile this familiar scenery with honesty and with truth once she reaches group therapy. As the play opens, she is playing a part in The Seagull. The first name she gives in rehab is that of this character, Nina. The pretence continues even as the alias changes. Is it Nina, Emma, Sarah or Lucy we see?
It is easy to see why Denise Gough won this year’s Olivier Award for Best Actress for this production. She eludes us, pushes us away, deceives us, manipulates us, just like she does to her mother, her group, those who think they grow to know her. I find her simultaneously incredibly frustrating and hypnotising. We reach out to her but she brushes off attempts to connect and engage with well-phrased untruths. She also plays being drunk and disorderly exceptionally well.

Rehab is not a magic first time solution to addiction and Duncan Macmillan’s play conveys this painfully well. In fact the ideal seems to be to get a job at the clinic, acting as a safety net once you are thrown back into the real world and its temptations. Substance abuse is like a romantic relationship for Emma. She is passionate about it. Emma is eloquent on addiction (Gough explains in an interview “I’ve seen people connect their success and personality to some substance” https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/mar/07/denise-gough-people-places-and-things-addiction-interview). Acting gives Emma the same buzz – providing a place where she speaks poetry, words “you would never think to say yourself” (from Romeo and Juliet: “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into little stars… all the world will be in love with night”) A place where all the amazing interesting things happen all at once without the boring parts. And then you go back to your own life. And what is it? How does it compare? Emma played the part of Antigone and her heart broke for her. When her own brother died she claims to have felt nothing.

The cast are consistently outstanding and the quips are quick and clever (“Amen is like pressing send on an email”). Following a stint at the Dorfman Theatre, this co-production from the National Theatre and Headlong moved to the Wyndham’s. It’s last performance was (sadly) yesterday. The play starts like the Wyndham’s is about to have a power cut – the please turn off your mobile phones message distorts, the lights flicker – it seems we are soon about to enter rehab where mobiles aren’t allowed and orange squash and the twelve steps of therapy dominate.

The set is clinical, another of Bunny Christie’s successes (she was responsible for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’s too). As Emma goes cold turkey we see multiple copies of her coming through the walls, through the bed, disturbing and mesmerising. I also like the idea of having audience members sitting on stage – their presence seems to reinforce the idea that it is all a performance, that there is an artifice to what we are watching.

Gough says “The final scene of the play, brutal in its laid-bare honesty, is quite simply the most powerful segment of theatre I’ve seen in years” http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/theatre/denise-gough-interview-i-thought-it-was-all-over-but-it-isn-t-a3194576.html ). I have to agree. There is a line which genuinely draws gasps from the immersed audience, a line which comes from the character Emma seems to seek approval from the most: but Emma, “ drugs and drink are what made you interesting”. There are painful glimpses of honesty which are indeed “brutal”. In the last scene Emma is in her old bedroom with her parents, faced with her past, some of which she genuinely doesn’t seem to remember. Her mum reminds her Emma broke her fingers last time she tried to help her daughter by getting rid of her drugs – “why do you think I don’t play the piano anymore?” We want the whole story but Emma herself only has a fragmented story. She can’t even give us her real name.

To hear that Emma is approaching forty is a shock for me, so childish is her behaviour especially with her parents. There is something strangely ageless about her and throughout the play Emma is a sort of void, a blank space where we glimpse someone who can be witty, clever, manipulative, caring, cruel, confused, vulnerable.  In this final scene we see a sad version of her – hunched in the box room along with the storage boxes, eventually alone, facing a future of people (although she “probably won’t have children now”), places, things, and what?

I’m keen to see whatever Denise Gough turns her talent to next.

Rising star Natasha Barnes in Funny Girl

NOMINATED FOR BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL AND BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL (SHERIDAN SMITH) – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

Until 8 October 2016

Twenty-six year old Natasha Barnes was about to take a job in Waitrose when she was offered a spot on the West End in a small role in Spring Awakenings (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/actors/natasha-barnes-sheridan-told-me-to-make-the-part-my-own/). Now as Sheridan Smith’s understudy she is the new star of the Savoy Theatre’s Funny Girl after Smith was forced to take a leave of absence following the BAFTAs. In spite of the sad circumstances it feels very fitting to see Barnes take to the stage to play Fanny Price. The appreciative standing ovation she deservedly earned with her knockout performance brought tears which Barnes assures us are always very real (“When I see all those people standing up for me at the end of a show, those are tears of absolute shock and joy, and I can’t help but cry them every night” Telegraph interview). Reportedly Smith told Barnes to make the role her own. Surely a daunting task when powerhouse past performers include not just Smith herself but also the legendary Barbara Streisland. Barnes does brilliantly and I’m glad to have seen her in the role, delivering a moving performance and capturing a charismatic vulnerability to Price’s focused determination.

Funny Girl charts Fanny Price’s rise to stardom as a singer, actress and comedian in early 20th century America, tracing her turbulent relationship with professional gambler Nick Arnstein (played by Darius Campbell). Thirteen years after her death in 1951, her life became a musical. Fanny is “funny”, not beautiful, she is unique, creative, witty, powerful, a “freckle in life’s complexion” proving you don’t need purely predictable beauty to be a success on stage. Fanny fights professionally and personally a world which typically shuns unpretty, where funny is foreign for a female performer. Fanny is happy to pay the way for her husband’s career ventures, whilst his reluctance to make her a “partner” suggests he doesn’t buy in to being invested in by his wife, and to seeing them as social equals. Or does his pride just feel stifled, forced into the shadows? Whilst Fanny goes from strength to strength Arnstein doesn’t maintain his own sense of self – travelling round, gambling – “that’s who I am”. The power tightrope of their relationship becomes more and more unstable.

The Savoy Theatre is very lovely, an intimate venue of grandeur restored to its 1929 design with a painted Spring sky ceiling, tucked away next to the hotel. The stage is beautifully set thanks to Michael Pavelka’s design. I particularly liked the set of Price’s dressing room, the delicate illuminated mirror, the abundance of flowers, the dressing screen, all conveying an almost ghostly elegance which is emphasised by the use of the sides of the stage and the profiles of the characters – particularly in a scene towards the end where characters turn like dancers in a music box against the mirrored walls.

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The musical is set at a time when “unmarried” is frankly a slur and the American woman’s dream is to be a happily married Sadie. In this modern reinvention there are tensions between this and the image of a strong independent woman striking out to forge a successful career, which inherently challenges the conventional passive role carved out for women as a beautiful “reflection of a man’s affection”. Brice wittily mocks this in her first performance for Florenz Ziegfeld, where she challenges his authority and does what she thinks is best – for she wants the audience to laugh with her, not at her. It is a roaring success. This attitude extends to her personal life. Does she not listen to the needs of her husband, absorbed in the journey of her own empowerment and assertion of independence? Whilst there is mockery of marriage as complete fulfilment there is also expression of it in sincere form – voiced by Fanny’s family and friends following a successful show (“The only thing that would make me happier would be to dance at your wedding”) and by Fanny herself.

There are two peaks where the famed Don’t Rain On My Parade reaches its emotional crescendo. Firstly in Fanny’s romantic pursuit of the marriage ideal, it is belted out as Fanny chooses to disregard her lover’s suggestion and turn up unannounced to secure her man in marriage. And again it reappears finally at the close of the play – lifting it to a much more optimistic finishing note.  Fanny picks herself up, goes out to face her waiting audience, and so reaches towards her successful career and a re-claiming of her own independence as her comfort. She casts off her dressing gown to reveal a dazzling dress of sparkles, a butterfly reborn? There is a suggestion of new life, possibility, continuation which is encouragingly optimistic in the face of emotional sadness and loss. Having faith in yourself, remembering your own self sufficiency and that success has all been earned by yourself (what did he ever give you?) seems the primary message, and it is a pleasing one.