Addiction is a parasite and something that is never fully cured. But the media impression of addiction – be it alcohol, smoking, drugs or anything else – is that it can be identified, quickly fixed and put away, with the person at the centre of it often depicted as a figure of fun. How many sensationalist stories have we seen of various popstars and actors checking into rehab before coming out and going back to exactly the same lifestyle. Addiction has become part of the soap opera of celebrity culture that fails to consider the real and ongoing struggle of the people involved.
Opening at the Wyndhams Theatre this week (home of all the great West End transfers – A View from the Bridge and Hangmen included), Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things which enjoyed a sell-out run at the National Theatre last year, focuses on the real struggles, frustrations, resentment and boredom that are part of the rehabilitation process. Theatre, films and television shows tackle addiction all the time from the seminal Trainspotting to the recently relapsed Phil Mitchell creating havoc on Albert Square, we are increasingly aware of the outrageous behaviour and wider emotional damage it causes for entire families or communities. Where People, Places and Things stands out, is its focus on the long and often painful road to recovery, taking in the individual struggle against the raging parasite of addiction.
As the play opens, a performance of The Seagull is taking place and the lead actress is spiralling out of control, unable to remember her lines because she’s too drunk. A moment later she’s checking into a rehab centre, still clinging to the drugs and cigarettes that have kept her going for so long. The play is largely about Emma (or Nina or Sarah or whatever other name she gives) going through the process of seeking help and the more difficult tasks of actually choosing to accept it before she can make any kind of real breakthrough. But as the treatment progresses we learn more about her background and profession that begin to make sense of her problems.
Making Emma an actress is an interesting decision because it immediately gives this a familiar feel to the audience – as I mentioned above, it’s something everyone has seen newspaper reports about. Emma is not an A-list Hollywood Star but a vaguely-recognisable actress meaning the action focuses on her personality and is not derailed by the supposed glamour of her profession and the other characters awe at sharing group sessions with a film star. Making her an actress also allows Macmillan to play with notions of identity, not just in Emma trying to work out which of the many personas she is, but also exposing the lies and deceits addicts create to mask their cravings, and convince themselves they are in control.
Denise Gough’s performance as Emma is really as good as you’ve heard and will almost certainly win her the Olivier in a couple of months. She’s largely objectionable from the start, refusing to buy-in to the processes of the treatment centre and just wanting to wait out the minimum 28 days before she can get her certificate and leave. She’s not there because she actively wants help but because no one will employ her until she’s clean. Gough is superb in the early sequences as the drunk and high Emma is disorientated, aggressive and frustrated by the check-in process. As she fails to engage in the loathed group sessions, Gough offers small cracks in Emma’s façade, where occasional brutal truths appear among the lies. You’re never being asked to like Emma very much, and you’d probably never want to meet her, but in Gough’s intense and brittle performance you do really care about her which makes the inconclusive punch at the end considerably more powerful. It’s an extremely skilled and moving performance that deserves every plaudit.
That ambiguity about the future is something that makes this play so successful, it doesn’t wrap everything up in a nice shiny bow at the end or remotely imply that rehab facilities will ‘cure’ addicts – in fact it suggest that perhaps that the safe environment may not entirely equip patients for the outside world. At one stage we see Emma, and several other residents of the centre, ‘rehearsing’ speeches to the people they love when they go home, and later we see how entirely divorced from reality that is as Emma eventually confronts her parents. This sense of a continuous struggle against Emma’s own personality reminded me of the film Shame, Steve McQueen’s beautiful and astonishingly touching movie about sex addiction, where the isolated central protagonist is repeatedly unable to overcome his urges, however much he consciously wants to, and finds no happiness or pleasure in these acts – a troubling and amazing film that I found myself thinking about even months later. And People, Places and Things has a similar effect.
Some of that is down to Headlong Theatre’s vivid and dynamic design. With previous experience of provocative shows like The Nether, here the action is set in a white-tiled u-shaped stage which gives it a clinical feel but at key moments video-projection, lighting and sound are used to show Emma’s disorientation as a result of the drugs she’s taken, shown as woosy green lights and the tiles on the wall cracking and flying upwards, or in a brilliant detox scene as 5 other ‘Emmas’ crawl out of her bed and walls, moving around the stage in a frenzy of delusion. This inventiveness, which director Jeremy Herrin uses sparingly, is more than just showy technique and helps to add insight into Emma’s struggles.
There’s good support from Barbara Marten as the doctor, therapy leader and Emma’s mother, as well as Kevin McMonagle as a failing fellow patient, but arguably the cast of additional characters are thinly sketched at best. While the group therapy sessions do try to give them all a backstory and chance to explain their own problems, these sections feel a little bland because we’re not properly invested in anyone else. They do tell us that ‘normal’ people suffer from these problems too and emphasises the value of the help they get, but it’s hard not to sympathise with Emma’s strong reaction against all the touchy-feely care-bear stuff, although they do give her a springboard to rail against it all which is fascinating.
People, Places and Things is an absorbing antidote to your preconception about addiction and rehab facilities. While the story is a little flabby in places, Denise Gough’s performance and the innovative design are well worth the ticket-price alone. Ultimately, this is just Emma’s story and, although it’s full of humour, it’s never a cliché but full of pain and loneliness and fear. We never know how Emma’s story ends because, for addicts, it never does and while the ending gives you some hope that Emma finds coping mechanisms to manage her cravings, you and she continue to fear that the pressure of modern living might just be too much for her.
People, Places and Things is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 18 June. Tickets start at £15 for the Upper Circle (recommend front or very back row as this the other rows are not raked enough to guve a clear view). Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.