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.