After a critically acclaimed run at the Dorfman, the National Theatre, in tandem with Headlong, have triumphantly transferred Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things to the West End. More an emotional roller-coaster ride than a conventional play, the author, together with his incandescent star, Denise Gough, scales the depths (and heights) of drug and alcohol addiction in a journey of self-discovery that will leave you desperately in need of a tipple yourself.
Gough, in what surely must be a career-defining performance, plays Emma, an actress who, during a run of Chekhov’s The Seagull in which she plays Nina, suffers a very public breakdown and is admitted into a rehab clinic where she gives her name as Nina and describes herself as a seagull.
Spaced out on a noxious cocktail of beta-blockers, ibuprofen, speed, Benzos, Valium, Ativan and a multivitamin for good measure, she is no asset to the group sessions, un-cooperatively scorning the clinic’s 12-step programme and abusively disrupting these meetings with her fellow addicts and their therapist.
Why, she wonders, is she being made to relinquish the very substances that give her relief? “Drugs and alcohol,” she says, “have never let me down. They have always loved me.” Without drugs, how can she cope with the all-pervasive chaos in the world and, by implication, the rejection she as an actress faces almost on a daily basis?
As the play progresses and the painful detox process gets underway (including the frenzied appearances of doppelgangers), fact and fantasy clash discordantly. Who is she? Is Emma her real name? Why does she also call herself Sarah, when her birth name, we later learn, is Lucy? She says she was abused as a child – but was she?
When finally persuaded to talk to the group, she tells them her younger brother Mark died of a brain hemorrhage while reading the story of Pinocchio to a bunch of five-year-olds. Actually, he didn’t, she says; he recently died of a drug overdose. In fact, maybe he isn’t dead at all. As for her own story, she substitutes the plot of Hedda Gabler.
The process by which Emma (her stage name) works through her obduracy, tames her willful personality, her scepticism and her demons, is vividly conveyed by Gough, the rawness and honesty of whose performance is simply breathtaking. The play’s penultimate scene, in which she unsentimentally confronts her long-suffering parents for the first time since her rehab, is more revealing than anything that precedes it, and provides Macmillan with a backstory hitherto non-existent.
Though Gough dominates every scene in which she appears (and she’s hardly ever off the stage), it is easy to overlook the solid contributions made by Barbara Maarten as a doctor, a therapist and Emma’s mother; Kevin McGonagle as as Emma’s bruised father; and Nathaniel Martello-White as Mark, a fellow addict who befriends Emma and is unintimidated and unimpressed by her manipulative game-playing.
The play’s many changes of mood and pace, the humour it excavates from its grim premise, and its edgy emotional highs and lows are brilliantly controlled by director Jeremy Herrin, while the combination of Bunny Christie’s cold, clinical set – atmospherically enhanced by James Farncombe’s often disorientating lighting design and the equally jarring, nerve-crunching sound effects by Tom Gibbons – are immeasurable contributions to a shattering evening in the theatre.