After I was unable to see it during its original run at the National Theatre last year, it has taken me far too long to get to People, Places & Things. Before my visit last Friday, I’d heard all of the praise it has received and was wondering if this new play really was as good as everyone was saying. Could it really live up to the hype? The short answer – it is and it did. In fact, it is one of the most powerful theatre experiences I’ve ever had and is a production which will stay with me for a long time to come.
Duncan Macmillan’s new play centres on Emma, played by the superb Denise Gough (more on that later). Emma is an actress, used to lying for a living by always pretending to be someone else. Emma is also an alcoholic and drug addict, who is in a much more desperate state than she is willing to admit. At the start of the play, we see her on stage in The Seagull, while drunk and/or high. In the next moment, the period dress is ripped away and we find ourselves in a sterile whiteness, as she voluntarily arrives at a rehab centre. She isn’t planning to stay long, just long enough to detox her system and get a certificate to say she is not a danger to an employer, so she can get back to work.
Most of the play is set within the rehab centre and we watch her experiences and struggles and those of the people in the centre’s support group sessions. We see people graduate, people ejected for breaking the rules and all of the ups and downs in between, which are faced by those confronting their addictions and those who aren’t quite ready to face them yet.
I admit it doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but one of the most impressive achievements of Macmillan’s writing is his ability to mix such difficult issues with humour. Emma is very funny and her humour is used to offset the more difficult aspects of her life. In fact you find yourself laughing out loud at moments that are darkly funny, when you perhaps think you shouldn’t. It adds an extra dimension of realism to the play.
This is also much more than a play about addiction – it is a very modern story, which feels incredibly relevant to today’s society. We may not all have the personal experience of drug or alcohol addiction, but the sense of battling to survive in the world, to succeed and be the best you can be, through all of the pressures and difficulties you may face, is one that everyone can relate to in some way. There is a scene in the play where Emma is talking to her friend Mark and they refer to Wile E Coyote – that he can seemingly run across a vast canyon and only plummets when he looks down. The message for life for all of us was clear – “Don’t look down.”
Director Jeremy Herrin’s production (a co-production by the National with the hugely exciting Headlong, whose past achievements include Enron, The Effect and American Psycho) moves with great pace, with occasional hedonistic music and lighting effects and some very clever methods of taking the audience in to Emma’s head as she begins to detox and Bunny Christie’s set is simple but very effective, which with the audience also on the stage (replicating the feel of the National’s Dorfman space) adds to a sense of the cast being enclosed in a confined space.
There are some strong supporting performances. Nathaniel Martello-White is very good as Mark, also at the centre for his third time. He has a lovely connection with Gough’s Emma, which feels very believable. Barbara Marten is also excellent, playing two different therapists (Emma quips that they all look like her mum) and then Emma’s mother, in some of the most powerful and emotive scenes I have seen on a stage. However, the stand out performance here is indeed that of Denise Gough, who after her recent Olivier win, is receiving all the prizes and praise she deserves for this performance.
All the usual superlatives don’t do justice to her portrayal of Emma. It’s simply astonishing to watch, fueled by so much emotion and physicality. You almost forget you are not witnessing the journey of a real person, so raw and believable is her work on the Wyndham’s stage. As the play approaches it’s incredibly powerful and moving conclusion, I was rooting for Emma in a way I haven’t for any other character. You could almost get out of your seat to go and support her. It has been a long time since I’ve been quite so invested in a person on stage. The comments I’ve heard that this is the greatest stage performance since Mark Rylance in Jerusalem are not an exaggeration.
This may, on the surface, be a play on a topic you wouldn’t normally choose to see, but I cannot urge you strongly enough to go to People, Places & Things. It is a theatre production that will be remembered for many years to come and will remind you just how powerful, raw and astonishing an experience live theatre can be. Go and buy some tickets. Do it now. Right now.
People, Places & Things continues its run at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London until 18th June. For more information visit its website here.