Review: Play About Rehab Is Disturbing Yet Compelling Viewing

People, Places & Things, Wyndham's Theatre ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 25 months ago
Review: Play About Rehab Is Disturbing Yet Compelling Viewing People, Places & Things, Wyndham's Theatre 4
Jacqui Dubois, Denise Gough and Sally George in People, Places & Things. Photo: Johan Persson.

Although the subject-matter of addicts painfully struggling to deal with their demons as they come clean is tough, People, Places & Things is far from just a wallow in the mire. With its illuminating leaps of imagination and bursts of dark humour the show has a real buzz to it.

First seen last year in a co-production with Headlong at the National Theatre, where it got rave reviews, Duncan Macmillan's play fully deserves its West End transfer.

It all starts with a play within a play (Chekhov's The Seagull) as we see Emma, the actress playing Nina, coming apart as she forgets not only her lines but who she is.

We follow her to a residential detox clinic, desperate to escape her downward spiral of substance abuse, as she joins an AA-style 12-step programme. But just coming off alcohol and other drugs won't solve her long-term problems; until she confronts the root causes of her addiction she will always be in danger of a relapse. Can she leave denial behind and open herself to the truth?

Macmillan's piercing but witty play not only shows the lies and self-deceptions that addicts practise in their dependencies and relationships, but also links this to identity and role-playing. With her low self-esteem, Emma only seems to feel comfortable when she is pretending to be someone else — even the name she goes under changes several times — and there are further theatrical references to Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Macmillan's piercing but witty play not only shows the lies and self-deceptions that addicts practise in their dependencies and relationships, but also links this to identity and role-playing.

As a form of group dramatherapy, she also acts out with the other patients' scenarios with key people in their lives in an effort to overcome interpersonal problems, but when she comes to do it for real with her own long-suffering parents it doesn’t go according to the script.  

Although some of the intimacy of the original Dorfman studio has been lost at Wyndham's, Jeremy Herrin's terrific production retains its exhilarating directness, with some of the audience on stage emphasising the 'performance' aspects of the piece. Bunny Christie's clinical white-tiled, box-like design conveys the sense of being trapped.

The nightmarish experience of Emma going cold turkey involves the hallucinatory appearance of multiple, identically dressed versions of herself crawling out from the walls and her bed, with James Farncombe's lighting first flickering warningly then blacking out altogether, while Matthew Herbert's discordant music and Tom Gibbons's shuddering sound add to the disturbing sense of disorientation.

Onstage the whole time, Denise Gough's intelligent but self-destructive Emma is compellingly watchable: always on the edge, foul-mouthed and funny, she lurches from sardonic disruptiveness to vulnerable sincerity, in an impressively committed performance.

Barbara Marten also does well as her patiently perceptive doctor/therapist and coldly unsympathetic mum, with Kevin McMonagle doubling as an aggressive patient and her inarticulate, undemonstrative dad.

There is also good support from Nathaniel Martello-White as Emma's friendly fellow addict turned staff member and from Alistair Cope as someone who's been through the same torturous journey that can go off the rails at any time.

People, Places & Things is on at Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road WC2H 0DA until 18 June. Tickets are £15-£90. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 24 March 2016