Broadway Baby

Addiction and theatre may seem good bedfellows as they have often made for a spectacular combination. From Long Day's Journey Into Night in the 50s, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in the 60s to the 90s' Trainspotting (amongst numerous others), many have been awarded both literally and with a place in theatrical history that has inspired companies today. But does that mean it could be too easy to rely on the power of such a topic alone to automatically make good theatre? In the National's production of Headlong's People, Places & Things, newly transferred to the Wyndham's, it resolutely pushes to the background any company who thinks the topic is enough – with a hilariously, honestly, humanly moving script that passes no judgment, gives no answers and holds your hand tightly for what may have been a difficult journey to go on alone.

Truly believable with a visceral performance that goes from being high on booze and drugs, to crashing low, at times angry, violent, dismissive, vulnerable and broken.

This is a story not of whether drugs or any addiction is good or bad. It's about our need for a feeling of fulfillment in life. Our need to be happy. Our need for something to “simplify the complexity of just being a human being”. That's how our protagonist (Emma – possibly...) describes it. Emma is an actress within an actress within an actress – both in her day-to-day dealings with life as well as in her profession. The play opens in a scene from Chekhov's Seagull where she's playing Nina and we see her onstage meltdown due to being high visualised by the literal crashing down of the set and an explosion of lights that completely blacks out the theatre with even the glow of the Fire Exit signs covered up (immaculately and simply designed by Bunny Christie and James Farncombe to subtly convey the state of the addled mind throughout). That reveals more of the audience sitting on the other side of the stage to the auditorium and immediately creates the intense claustrophobic feeling that she lives in and we are about to be a part of.

Emma is entering rehab, but not to face up to her truths and recover, merely to get her ‘certificate’ so she can continue to work. She is smoking, taking coke and calling her Mother a c**t whilst registering – lying about her name, her background and even her brother's death. In an environment where getting better is preached as being impossible without honesty with one's self and with each other, she aggressively rejects the notion of truth as being important – her only absolute truth being that life “is just overwhelmingly disappointing” and “drugs and alcohol have never let me down” for they are the only things that love her back.

You're not being bashed around the head here, rather being coddled with enjoyment so that the painful reality of the characters' issues simply seeps through

What is the point of life if we have to avoid the people, places and things that make us happy? Making us happy meaning getting us high. What is the importance of our own little lives when others have real problems with no food or water? Her battle with these questions alienate the group and disrupt her own attempts at recovery until she finally crashes so hard that she decides to find her own ‘God’ to help her feel better in a world where she can’t rely on other ways to make her happy. Our automatic programming is that addiction is a bad thing – yet we can't help but think that she makes some good points. We all have our own ways of getting through our reality and just judge others as worse paths to take.

Yet this is as far from being a lecture or morality tale as is possible for such a subject. Duncan Macmillan's script masterfully uses dry, self-effacing honest humour throughout that makes you laugh out loud whilst the questions it raises slowly permeate the brain. You're not being bashed around the head here, rather being coddled with enjoyment so that the painful reality of the characters' issues simply seeps through – and is all the more impactful and believable for it. In truth, don't we all often deal with difficult situations in life by masking them with humour – it's probably a very British trait and to that extent, a very British play (though far from exclusively as attested by the Americans sitting around me).

Whilst Gough's performance is of a calibre rarely seen, the ensemble around her are equally absorbing

Indeed – oddly for what you might expect in a play mostly set in a rehab facility – the only time it starts to be more direct and so jars is when the humour takes a back seat whilst the patients each explain the reasons and background to their own addiction. Important and moving as these stories are, this feels like what you would expect to be seeing in another play on the subject, being more of a checklist of ‘addicts’ (the abused wife, the HIV+ rent boy, the lonely singleton et al). That's not to say it isn’t powerful stuff and it fits in its place in the story – just that it's more ‘normal’ than the intelligently exciting treatment of most of the play's script and visuality.

It’s impossible to argue with the plaudits already given to Denise Gough, who is on stage for almost all of the two and a half hours as Emma and is hotly tipped to receive the Best Actress Olivier Award this year. She is truly believable with a visceral performance that goes from being high on booze and drugs, to crashing low, at times angry, violent, dismissive, vulnerable and broken. It's a gamut of emotions that could, in another's hands, easily sway into cliché – and we may even forgive the odd skirting into “emotional acting” if it happened. But it doesn't. Ever. She's not necessarily likeable but her performance is so completely of the moment – whether she is screaming raging or so small that you can barely hear her (she throws away the huge line “Oh please, I'm trying really hard” in such a tiny, unpleading way, where many may have covered it with desperation, that she makes your heart ache, so much do you believe in her trying).

But whilst Gough's performance is of a calibre rarely seen, the ensemble around her are equally absorbing. Jeremy Herrin's direction is all in the nuance, bringing the actors together and pushing them apart with the most intricate of touches, looks and empathy – making you want to lean forward and draw in every breath of their emotion. Particular mention goes to Barbara Morten as the therapist who maintains a steady, methodical coolness but hints at an emotional involvement bubbling beneath the surface. And Nathaniel Martello-White as Mark – the patient who sees Emma for what she really is and tells it to her straight – manages to convey a possible attraction without any overblown emotion, just by seeming to really, really listen. Which is one of the great skills of all the cast – if you take your eyes off Gough, you will see how involved they all seem, displaying just the smallest actions and reactions, like it really is the first time any of them have ever heard or seen what is taking place.

With The Father having just finished its most recent West End run, People, Places & Things has neatly taken its place as a piece that treats you like an adult, taking a seemingly difficult subject and then making you think and laugh in equal measure. The subtleties of the staging, lighting and projections (at one point, when Emma is high, the walls and exit sign seem to melt around her in the background – you have to spot it for it's never commented on) are matched by the display of the inner complexities of the mind by the cast. It also really is more laughter-filled than most comedies on right now. And Denise Gough is worth the price of a ticket alone – her only worry must be how she will better what has to be a career-defining performance that should go down in the annals of history from Olivier to Rylance. When she does better this, I want to be there first.


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The Blurb

People, Places and Things, the highly acclaimed production of Duncan Macmillan’s intoxicating new play will transfer to the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre from 15 March 2016.

Denise Gough will recreate her ‘career defining performance’ as Emma, an actress whose life has spun recklessly out of control because of her addiction to drink and drugs.

Directed by Jeremy Herrin, and currently at National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre where it continues its sold out run until 4 November, it is the latest collaboration between Headlong and the National, following Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London and Lucy Prebble’s The Effect.  

Emma was having the time of her life. Now she’s in rehab. Her first step is to admit that she has a problem. But the problem isn’t with Emma, it’s with everything else. She needs to tell the truth. But she’s smart enough to know that there’s no such thing.

When intoxication feels like the only way to survive the modern world, how can she ever sober up?

 

★★★★
Guardian, Time Out, Independent, The Times, Financial Times, The Sunday Times, Mail on Sunday, Sunday Express 

'Vivid. Vibrant. Astonishing performances from Denise Gough, Barbara Marten and Alistair Cope.' Guardian

'Thoughtful. Darkly humane. Superbly directed by Jeremy Herrin.' Independent

'A bold, timely and searching play.' Financial Times

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