People, Places and Things

Duncan Macmillan
National Theatre, Mark Gordon Pictures, Gavin Kalin Productions, Seaview and Second Half Productions
Trafalgar Theatre

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Denise Gough as Emma Credit: Marc Brenner
The cast of People, Places and Things Credit: Marc Brenner
Danny Kirrane as Foster and Denise Gough as Emma Credit: Marc Brenner
Denise Gough as Emma Credit: Marc Brenner
Denise Gough as Emma and Malachi Kirby as Mark Credit: Marc Brenner
Sinéad Cusack as Doctor and Danny Kirrane as Foster Credit: Marc Brenner
Denise Gough as Emma Credit: Marc Brenner
Denise Gough as Emma Credit: Marc Brenner
Malachi Kirby as Mark, Denise Gough as Emma, Sinéad Cusack as Therapist, Kevin McMonagle as Paul Credit: Marc Brenner

Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse might be the epigram for Duncan Macmillan’s witty, agile, erudite People, Places and Things, a dynamic take on life, addiction, rehab, individuality versus the group and the fucked-up (as the lead character Emma might say) state of the world. How can anyone stay sane? What is real? Dialectics and fakery (“the assassination of self”), breakdown and healing… The human comedy.

Emma is an alcoholic, a drug-addicted actress, and she’s been here before in a rehearsal room; all this group role-play therapy is just a theatre workshop for her. She disdains it, but she needs urgent help. You name it, she’s taken it: illegal drugs and legal drugs illegally. She’s good at lying; she’s an actress after all. Life is a play. But rehab is no good unless you are honest and admit to yourself that you are an addict, and Emma’s clever evasions are at the heart of the matter.

Emma, or whatever her real name is—there are several pseudonyms, not least Nina, the role she is playing when she has a breakdown on stage. She is a Seagull, the Seagull, she doesn't really know who she is any more, but, wow, she is so articulate about that. And Denise Gough is the mercurial anarchic Emma, or Sarah or…

First seen in the National Theatre’s Dorfman in 2015, then at Wyndham's Theatre in 2016, Gough won a richly deserved Olivier Award (2016) and a Critics’ Circle Theatre Award (2015) for best actress. Trafalgar Theatre has a polished gem on its hands. “The gift of desperation”...

I’m sure many will identify with many of the issues on stage—each of us will bring our unique experiences to the play—we all have families, the world is hard to navigate. And if press night is anything to go by, alcohol is a relaxant if nothing else. People are laughing a lot. Do we laugh in Antigone? She’s lost a brother, Mark, but what is the real story of his death?

Laughter through tears, I think. There are references to Chekhov, Ibsen, and more, roles she has played—is she playing another guarded role for the clinic, its doctor, therapist and its fragile patients? Foucault and God are traded, but I’m with Wile E Coyote or Don Coyote (Don Quixote, get it?). Inmate Mark tells Emma not to look down, as when Coyote looks down, that's when he falls. Not bad advice in an existential crisis.

Emma falls badly, twice in the play. Her brain, fragmenting from drug withdrawal, splinters into several Emmas (movement by Polly Bennett) crashing into walls, climbing through the bed. It’s a tour de force from Gough—how she can keep this up night after night is remarkable. She is hyper-strung-up, her body language as comic and articulate as her fiercely independent talk.

Her mum is everywhere—she sees her in the doctor, the therapist (all three played by Sinéad Cusack)—always blame the mother… a mighty force in her damaged psyche, expectations too high, a brother dead. Home is a dangerous place for her, but back she goes. If she can face the people, places and things that unhinged her, she may be able to sort of recover, but it's a lifelong battle.

The ambiguous end indicates she’s on a fine wire negotiating her parents: not as simple as in the role-play, her real mum and dad answer back with some home truths, their painful truths. Is her contrition a desperate lie? And those endless demeaning auditions (an actor’s life is not easy, menial jobs to survive and the constant treadmill of selling yourself).

Malachi Kirby as Mark (same name as her brother, but is that true…?), Danny Kirrane as Foster (a softie who loves his rescue dog too dearly) and Kevin McMonagle (dad and bonkers inmate Paul who finds God) give great support. The ensemble interaction is slick, stories overlap at speed—we must stay alert to keep up.

A tremendously stimulating evening—I reread the text as soon as I get home. Jeremy Herrin’s direction is tight and sympathetic on Bunny Christie’s confined, boxed-in, white-walled set. Matthew Herbert’s techno music (it doesn't stop for the interval—mood maintained), his gunfire and echoing voices soundscape, and James Farncombe’s lighting combine in throbbing psychedelia, nightclubbing and mental dissolution in one.

Macmillan says it took ten years to write, much research in treatment centres and with people in recovery, and I’d say empathy and compassion. How successful talk treatment is for addiction is touched on (Emma’s resistance), some see it as too spiritual, and not all can fall for that. It’s a tricky area given light by an intellectual dialogue and physically demanding exposition.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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