People, Places & Things

Duncan Macmillan

Headlong and National Theatre

Wyndham's Theatre

From 15 March 2016 to 18 June 2016

Review by Philip Fisher

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Following this Headlong co-production’s triumphant debut at the National, Denise Gough won the Critics’ Circle Drama Award for Best Actress in 2015. This was a tribute to her gruelling but totally believable portrayal of the central figure in Duncan Macmillan’s searing drama about addiction.

This West End transfer confirms the view that you will not see better acting on a London stage this year either.

Director Jeremy Herrin has been obliged to re-stage the piece since the original traverse production was not physically possible behind a proscenium arch.

In keeping with the original, though, set designer Bunny Christie has maintained the voyeuristic concept by putting a relatively small number of audience members in a bank of seats filling the upstage space behind the actors.

Following a comically disastrous attempt to play Nina in The Seagull, the central figure, an actress who swaps identities as easily offstage as on, feels obliged to check into an addiction clinic.

There, Denise Gough begins her awesome performance, remaining on stage throughout close to 2½ hours, with the initial vision of a delusional woman in denial about many of her problems.

Swiftly, we begin to understand the horrors of coming down from a long-term addictive high, portrayed with the assistance of some special effects that would be amusing if they weren’t quite so terrifying.

The play presents a raw, painful depiction of the agonies of addiction and its impact on friends and family.

One hopes that not too many audience members will have been through the gruelling experiences shown on stage but, by the end, they will have a good understanding of the trauma of self-revelation and acceptance that are required to escape from the regular cycle of addiction, seen twice over as the protagonist returns to the clinic in a very different, more docile, frame of mind for a second dose of treatment after the interval.

This is not merely the Denise Gough show. Taking a trio of key parts, Barbara Marten switches effortlessly between maternal roles providing support and kindness as a doctor and therapist, before she takes part in a stunning ending playing the Mum, alongside Kevin McGonagle as Dad, revealing some literal home truths that are shocking and will make viewers redefine the whole experience.

Before that, as similarly supportive characters Nathaniel Martello-White and Alistair Cope each provide hope and remarkable degrees of patience that might reflect their characters’ experiences as recovering addicts themselves.

Duncan Macmillan is a perceptive and incisive writer who takes the opportunity to go way beyond his ostensible subject to analyse the way that we live today and the ease with which one can allow society’s ever more demanding expectations to become overpowering and lead to artificial means of escape.

People, Places & Things is to be celebrated for a magnificent masterclass in acting from Denise Gough, which complements a magnificently written and judged drama. It is a remarkable play, given an epic production, which shows tenderness towards those in need but also recognises that frequently their predicaments are a direct consequence of their own weakness. It also manages to treat serious issues with enough levity to prevent the evening from becoming depressing, which is no mean feat.