wed 19/06/2024

People, Places and Things, Trafalgar Theatre review - a scintillating shot in the arm | reviews, news & interviews

People, Places and Things, Trafalgar Theatre review - a scintillating shot in the arm

People, Places and Things, Trafalgar Theatre review - a scintillating shot in the arm

Duncan MacMillan’s riotous reflection on addiction and recovery returns

Cold turkey. Danny Kirrane and Denise Gough in 'People, Places & Things'Marc Brenner

It’s unusual for a play to be revived with its original director and star, let alone a decade after they premiered the piece. But here we are, with Jeremy Herrin again steering Denise Gough through Duncan MacMillan’s thorny, provocative, exhilarating account of addiction, rehab and a kind of redemption.

For those who didn’t see the original National Theatre and Headlong production in 2015/16, this is a chance to catch one of the most lauded new plays of recent years, and one of the great performances. Nine years on, the sensational Gough reinhabits her troubled character with conspicuous familiarity and glee, and ferocious conviction. 

The play can only have become richer in the intervening years. Post Covid, post lockdown, with society’s growing awareness and acceptance of mental health issues, alongside a collective, urgent desire to connect – these things make it seem freshly minted, a vivid, relevant, resonant piece of work.

While we’ve seen rehab stories many times before, not least ones centred on a sparky, spiky individual resisting “the group” dynamic, MacMillan imbues his with a quirky specificity. By making his main character an actress, a professional liar if you will, for whom disappearing into characters is routine, even a psychological necessity, the deception and self-deception of the addict become even trickier prospects for those around her. Moreover, despite the seriousness of its subject, the result is unapologetically, hilariously entertaining, which for some may be a provocation in itself. The play makes me think of  the film adaptation of Trainspotting, another piece about addiction whose visual flair and gallows humour make the pathos, when it hits, all the more powerful. 

Designer Bunny Christie’s set is a large open frame whose tiled walls give off a distinctly institutionalised vibe, while easily adapted through lighting and props to double as nightclub, office, meeting hall or suburban home.

The wit and flash kick in immediately, with Emma (Gough) appearing in a play within the play, as The Seagull’s Nina, but so drunk and drugged that she’s struggling to know who, or where she is – and seems to be on the verge of vomiting. “I’m a Seagull…. I’m an actress… I love acting,” she blurts, before falling through the set. 

The scene then changes to a night of wild, loud, trippy clubbing. And next we see her, a mess, at the entrance of a rehab centre – aware that if she keeps going as she has, she’ll die. But it's a sign of the extent of her addiction that even now, here, she’s completely under the influence. And the act of checking herself in doesn’t prevent Emma from resisting treatment, particularly the AA-style, spiritually-fuelled 12-step route to recovery; she convinces herself that it’s pointless, even risible, to assume she can control her own destiny. And, what’s more, “It’s the world that’s fucked”.The early stages of the play are the most startling, and compelling, fuelled by the extraordinarily sustained intensity of Gough’s depiction of drug-induced agitation and befuddlement. The stage pulsates in keeping with her mood, the tiled walls seeming to melt as she hallucinates, or the action split by a machine-gun clamour, or half a dozen Emma clones suddenly appearing from the walls and from inside her hospital bed, dancing chaotically around, Gough’s Emma lost, indistinguishable amongst them. 

While not a celebrity actress by any stretch, Emma initially refuses to reveal anything about herself. In fact, she checks in as Nina, eventually admits to Emma, but this may not be her real name either; when she reluctantly tells her life story to the group, she’s called out by another patient, Mark (the charismatic Malachi Kirby) for cribbing the plot of Hedda Gabler. Like many addicts, she can never stop acting; in turn, MacMillan posits acting itself as an addiction, making parallels between the profession and the habit – most notably as Emma extols the acting “high” of portraying lives in only their intense moments, without any of the boring bits of life that drag you down. It’s all highly fanciful, but that’s partly the point: Emma is attempting to hide her real trauma behind cod intellectualisation. 

Those around her, including the institute’s doctor and therapist (both played by Sinéad Cusack, pictured above with Gough) attempt to keep her in check, one using Emma’s own pretension to ask pointedly, “How do you think this story ends?” 

Eventually both character and play edge towards the genuine issues that Emma needs to address before cleaning up and moving on. And while the second half feels a little underwhelming, compared to the whirlwind of the first, it hits the mark in identifying Emma’s biggest challenge to recovery. In her third role, as Emma’s mother, Cusack switches from two nurturing, supportive individuals, to someone so passively aggressive that she belies the notion of safe harbour that some might expect from the family home. 

Herrin, who also has Long Day's Journey Into Night playing at the nearby Wyndham's, perfectly serves this play's vitality and wit, as well as the growing tension as the audience starts to invest in Emma's fate. That said, the piece is entirely dependent on the central performance, which must make a febrile, combative, deliberately elusive character also vulnerable, sympathetic and, ultimately, knowable. Gough achieves all of that and more; one could watch her for hours. 

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