There’s been unanimous appreciation for People, Places and Things for quite some time now, and a collective agreement that seeing it on stage – with Denise Gough in the lead role – is really quite something special. Since opening at the National’s Dorfman Theatre last September, Duncan MacMillan’s honest and bleakly funny play has enjoyed sold-out performances and award recognition. The depth of the piece, the empathy you feel (even if the subject matter does not initially apply to you) and the extraordinary cast simply represent theatre at its best.
Addiction is paramount here but substance abuse itself is secondary. The demons that have brought the characters to rehab – alcohol and drugs – may be socially stigmatised, bringing with them often misinformed ideas of theft, selfishness, the fiery pits of hell etc. Whilst MacMillan acknowledges this, analysing specific characters as he is, he more importantly tells us that we’re all quite capable of addiction in some way or another. This broad, deeply emphatic approach is consistent throughout People, Places and Things. Nobody is perfect and nobody is truly happy and MacMillan shows us that that is quite alright – from small things we can all relate to (“I’m actually quite healthy… I go to the gym. Sometimes.”) to the idea of control. Do you feel an overwhelming urge to be in control of your life? “Addicts control everything. They fear chaos. They think they’re the centre of the universe”. This play tampers with humanity at its most raw, finding what many think and feel but perhaps are not aware of.
MacMillan’s text is excellently realised by Jeremy Herrin with some deeply human, real performances. Bunny Christie delivers a set that is heavy in simple versatility. Mimicking the Dorfman, on-stage seating is available here, where the audience are pretty much in the rehab centre. The seats provided are basic but a very interesting alternative to the traditional theatre experience.
People, Places and Things has been written for Gough, or so it feels. There’s an energy about her performance that I have never felt before, with an almost sickening certainty that something spectacular is and has happened. In the throes of her addiction, playing Nina in The Seagull and arriving at the centre, Gough is deeply unattractive; she gives us the reality of what drug addiction can do to a person and whilst she impresses here, it is the journey she clearly goes on, completely encompassing Emma throughout, that is so beautiful. The humour, however bleak it may be, is lovingly and easily channelled by both Gough and the rest of the strong cast. Nathaniel Martello-White’s Mark and Barbara Marten as numerous characters are both exceptional, with the latter’s performance strongest as Emma’s blunt and broken mother.
MacMillan and Gough both keep the audience guessing. Who is Emma really? Where does the actress begin and end? Questions are not here to be answered; rather, they are piled ever higher, causing more and more deliberation over your own capabilities. Does it take a certain kind of person to become an addict? Perhaps. Drugs and alcohol are not glamorous and they can happen to anyone, but to what level is unsure. Accompanying me and walking to get the tube home, my boyfriend exclaimed that this and Gough are the reasons he went into acting. I think that sums it up perfectly.
People, Places and Things is playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 18 June. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo: Johan Persson