The Theatreguide.London Review
Dorfman Theatre Autumn 2015; Wyndham's Theatre Spring 2016
This new play from Duncan Macmillan and Headlong could so easily have slid into the clichés of an American made-for-television 'issue' movie that every time it doesn't – every time it jolts sideways and catches you by surprise – you feel the thrill of being in the hands of people who know what they are doing and aren't going to let you down.
This is a play about addiction and the immense difficulty of overcoming it. The central character is a nice middle-class woman – she happens to be an actress, but that's almost irrelevant – who lives on alcohol, pills, cocaine and just about everything else illegal she can put in her body.
We catch her at the crisis moment when she checks herself into rehab, expecting a quick detox and certification that she's safe to employ. But recovery is harder than that, and she has to go through every protective shield of denial, refusal to participate, lying, role-playing, overconfidence, underconfidence, manipulation, blaming others, blaming herself and the like before she reaches the point where she might – just might – have a chance.
Playwright Macmillan, director Jeremy Herrin and a cast led by the remarkable Denise Gough take us on this journey, artfully sidestepping every single pitfall of cliché or easy expectation, either of plot, characterisation or judgement.
Emma – which may or may not be her name, as she hides behind several in sequence – is given no simple explanation (childhood abuse, pressures of her profession, etc.) for her addictive nature.
Nor does her story build to a big dramatic revelation or self-exposure, and nor does the play end with an absolutely clear future promised. Indeed, the last fifteen minutes or so of the play are among the most intense, as we see how difficult even the final steps toward recovery are going to be.
Along the way we do get a view of at least one sort of addiction treatment, combining detox with extensive group therapy and an Alcoholics Anonymous style process of redefining one's relationship to the addiction. And, as we see and hear in Emma's resistance all the arguments that can be raised against this approach, we begin to separate the legitimate doubts from the self-protective denials.
People, Places And Things is not meant as an educational tool, but by bringing these topics and conflicts alive it does, almost in passing, add to our understanding.
Education aside, the power of the play lies in the degree to which we feel for Emma, believe that what we see is how such a woman would behave, recognise the immense cost to her first of denial and then of admission, and care about where she is going during and after the play.
Although the play's mode is essentially realistic, a couple of inventive expressionistic sequences – one in which Emma is split into a half-dozen actresses all going through the agonies of withdrawal, and one in which the plodding passage of time is indicated by playing several group therapy scenes simultaneously – take us into the character's experience in particularly powerful ways.
Guided by director Jeremy Herrin (who also moves everyone else about smoothly and draws complex, unclichéd performances from them), Denise Gough gives a powerful and courageously naked performance in the central role, resisting any actress's impulse to retain a hint of attractiveness or cuteness in this character who is going to have to go through an entire repertoire of coldness and nastiness before she approaches recovery.
And in keeping with the whole production's refusal to take any easy routes, she constantly surprises us with moments or line readings that ring absolutely true.
There are strong performances as well by Barbara Marten as two separate authority figures who both remind Emma of her mother (who Marten also eventually plays), and Nathaniel Martello-White as a fellow patient.
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