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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Dorfman)


  (L to R) Jacqui Dubois, Denise Gough and Sally George/ Ph: Johan Persson

The old truism about acting has it that it’s hard to play drunk, to portray a character who is inebriated. What this scintillatingly hard-hitting new drama from Duncan Macmillan proves is that it’s equally tough to play an alcoholic going cold turkey, shaking and hallucinating as her body reacts viscerally to the sudden deprivation of its favourite poison. Luckily, the actress who must undertake this challenge is the brilliant Denise Gough, one of the most exciting performers on the British stage.

Gough is Emma, an actress who is hooked on drink and drugs. In a clever touch, we first encounter Emma “on stage,” going wildly to pieces in a production of The Seagull in which she is playing, of course, that famously self-destructive actress Nina. As all other options have now been exhausted, rehab has to beckon. But all that bright, conflicted Emma wants is a quick patch and fix, not the introspection that obligatory participation in group therapy with a bunch of other addicts perforce entails. And as for all that nonsense the 12-Step Programme spouts about submitting to a higher power, forget it. Emma doesn’t want, doesn’t need, any of that. She’s a determined woman, so she should be able to do it on her own. Shouldn’t she?

This play is, as it must be, all about Gough. All angles and fierce vulnerability, she’s the beating heart of every scene. Her body language is mesmerically vivid. She sways disarmingly back and forth when under the influence, before bending her body almost into the shape of a question mark once in rehab. When she’s finally forced into the group, she slouches defiantly back on her hard plastic chair, while the other members share and interact in a dynamic montage.

Jeremy Herrin’s confident production unfolds on Bunny Christie’s sterile, open, plastic set, eerily redolent of any anonymous medical facility. From such barren surrounds, surprises spring. During Emma’s first days of withdrawal, strobe lights flash angrily, disjointed white noise crackles out, and multiple actresses who resemble Emma climb out from inside her Spartan single bed. Her very identity, it is suggested, hangs in the balance without the all-supporting crutch of intoxicants.

Macmillan’s robust writing doesn’t shy away from the sheer hard grit and graft of the rehab routine, and an excoriating, climactic showdown between Emma and her family is unflinching in its bare and brutal honesty. Along the way, Macmillan also offers some welcome truths about acting, as Emma frets about her future career prospects. “You go from being the sexy ingénue to the tired mother of three,” she says of women’s perpetually tough deal across the entertainment industry. Later she touches on that potential psychological pitfall of the acting profession: “If I’m not in character, I don’t even know if I’m there.” But she’s there all right, the whole way through, in all the failing, flailing humanity that had me, had lots of the audience, laughing through my tears. The rumoured West End transfer of this play can’t come soon enough.


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