As “People Places and Things” comes to the end of its time in London’s West End, there has been talk of a limited run on Broadway later this year, according to the Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye. Since opening at the National Theatre’s Dorfman space back in September last year and transferring to the Wyndham’s Theatre on 15th March, the play has generated rave reviews; not to mention its leading lady, Denise Gough, taking home the Critic’s Circle Theatre Award and 2016 Olivier Award for Best Actress. Indeed, Gough gives the performance of a lifetime in a role most actresses would kill to play.
From the off this collaboration between Headlong and the National Theatre seemed to tick every box in Headlong’s “mission statement”. Duncan Macmillan’s feisty, painfully honest script throws us straight in at the deep end alongside ‘Emma’, an actress with a one way ticket to the end. We are on board a highly charged, emotional rollercoaster as our heroine struggles to overcome her demons. Director Jeremy Herrin’s concept fuses the visual with the visceral, using light and sound to attack our senses in what could almost be a parallel to Emma’s traumatic withdrawal. Snap blackouts, aggressive coloured lights pulsing in time with club music and outstanding visual effects instantly disorientate the audience in a way that is both disturbing and encourages empathy.
Unexpectedly, the play opens with a prologue contextualising the leading lady as an actress performing as Nina in The Seagull, however we soon strip down to Bunny Christie’s white, clinical set; so clean you could conjure the smell of disinfectant. We find ourselves, alongside Emma, in the reception area of ‘rehab’ witnessing her tiny frame; trembling and scatty as she swears down the phone at her mother, dragging heavily on a final cigarette and snorting one last line of cocaine. The set suggests a blank canvas, and combined with the section of audience seated on stage opposite, it seemed as though we were being asked to take a look at ourselves, at who we are. If this implication is intentional, it's a clever device; we watch these characters wipe the slate clean and begin again, all the while having our own perceptions of ourselves reflected back at us. This concept works especially well in the group therapy sessions as it is precisely what the patients are striving for; self knowledge and awareness.
As Emma goes through withdrawal, battling hallucinations and excruciating physical side effects, the carefully crafted lighting and video design by James Farncombe and Andrzej Goulding add maximum impact. From the sudden flashes of light to the apparent crumbling of the tiles on the walls, the appearance of multiple ‘Emmas’ coupled with Tom Gibbons’ aggressive, edgy sound design; all merge to create an extremely evocative and hard-hitting interpretation of physical and psychological trauma of the early stages of rehab. Herrin has paid close attention to the pace and structure of the production; I noticed by the end that there was a marked change in the pace of Emma’s first and second times in rehab, juxtaposing the shock and impact of the first encounter with the element of resignation present in the second. Indeed when she slowly sets up the chairs for ‘group’, an activity she rejected relentlessly in the first cycle, we see that such a seemingly small task can mean so much.
Denise Gough’s performance brims with intensity and passion. The twitches, turns and tremors of addiction seem overwhelming as she staggers about the stage, attacking the dialogue with wild abandon. The portrayal is at its strongest when Emma is at her most vulnerable; the wild eyed young woman who jumps from silent tears to rough physical anguish as quick as a flash. The fragile soul confronting her parents at the very end of the play in a pair of heartbreaking duologues first with her father, then her mother have a real sense of intensity and impact. Gough’s interpretation is powerful and emotive. It leaves her audience exhausted and raw, so one can only imagine what such a role takes out of the performer working eight shows a week! It is fair to say that Duncan Macmillan gave the gift of a role to Denise Gough, however it is extremely apparent that the honesty and detail she has etched into the character has made ‘Emma’ a labour of love for the actress.
There is a point in “People Places & Things” where Emma says, ‘I want to live vividly…’ This seems to me to be at the core of the entire concept of the production. The cast are vibrant and focused, coming together to weave a magical web of experiences and emotions, and the technical production values fill the action with vitality. The play is a bold take on rehabilitation, not afraid to reveal the seeming ‘benefits of addiction’ in order to drive home the seriousness of Emma’s condition and her need for recovery. An outstanding production that will stay with all who saw it for a long time.