People, Places & Things failed to keep me engaged throughout. I know this because I had to be elbowed by a fellow theatregoer as I had fallen asleep before the interval. Act Two was marginally better, insofar as I managed a titter in response to a punchline, though even this was repeated so often in a subsequent scene that it ceased to be amusing.
I should add at this juncture that my viewpoint on this play is in the minority, at least judging by the reaction of much of the rest of the audience at curtain call – and indeed during the show. They laughed heartily. They audibly gasped at twists in the plot. They found it powerful and extraordinary. So maybe it was just me. But why wasn’t I so enthusiastic? Maybe it’s because I’ve seen recovering addicts on stage before, more than once. Rob Hayes’ Step 9 (of 12), at the Trafalgar Studios in 2012. Blackout at the Hope Theatre in 2014. Matthew Perry’s The End of Longing at the Playhouse Theatre in 2016.
And here it all is again, with the expletives left, right and centre, this time from Emma (Denise Gough), who is not actually Emma, as it eventually turns out, but I will keep faith with the cast list as provided in the programme, and also not give too much away. The first few minutes are mildly pleasing, although it very quickly became drama about drama, something which barely lets up during the evening’s proceedings.
Gough is clearly a very capable actor but her character goes from being aggressive and confrontational to droning on and on; a most unlikeable person in every way. At least it’s a plausible and believable character, a cross between, to steal references doled out in the play itself, Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull and Blanche Dubois from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
For the most part, I’m sorry to say, it was more than a bit dull. One scene, the one in which I entered the Land of Nod, went on for so long that a part of me sympathised with Emma (or whatever her name was at that time), who was getting increasingly distressed and uncomfortable. The final monologue, too, was frankly tortuous. Emma had said something quite bold, which might have served as a decent epilogue (albeit a cryptic and ambiguous one), but then she carried on. And on. And on. By the time she had finally finished I had simply lost interest.
What should be borne in mind is that not every National Theatre production gets a West End transfer, and so it is very surprising that I should find it so unimpressive, especially when this is a Headlong Theatre production – Headlong usually puts in tour de force performances – and I suppose this show fitted the bill for some. But not having seen this particular play when it was at the Dorfman, it’s entirely possible that some of its intensity was lost in moving to a larger theatre space (as was the case when Great Britain transferred from the Lyttelton to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2014).
An evangelistic appeal from fellow ex-addict Paul (Kevin McMonagle) fell totally flat for me, and I thought was rather unnecessary. It raised laughs from much of the rest of the audience, so I suppose there’s comic relief in it. Elsewhere, for all the elongated roleplays and discussions in group therapy, it’s only back in the ‘real’ world that the play really comes alive, in a family meeting between Emma and her parents. But by then it’s a case of too little, too late.
Given the play’s subject matter I would have expected something more disturbing, more thrilling and more hard-hitting. As it stands, the depiction of Emma’s mental state, whether through drugs or withdrawal symptoms (incidentally, it’s not crystal clear which it is at any given moment) is well choreographed and helpful in understanding this most complex central character. There are also some striking metaphors in the use of Emma’s profession as an actor that ask some pertinent questions about personal identity. But the whole thing is too long and too uneven to qualify as a triumph.
Review by Chris Omaweng
People, Places and Things
Fresh from an acclaimed sold-out season in the Dorfman Theatre, this new production will transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre for 12 weeks only from 15 March 2016.
An intoxicating new play about surviving the modern world. Written by Duncan Macmillan (1984) and directed by Jeremy Herrin (Wolf Hall).
Emma was having the time of her life. Now she’s in rehab.
Her first step is to admit that she has a problem. But the problem isn’t with Emma, it’s with everything else. She needs to tell the truth. But she’s smart enough to know that there’s no such thing.
When intoxication feels like the only way to survive the modern world, how can she ever sober up?
The National Theatre and Headlong co-production of PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS
by Duncan Macmillan
directed by Jeremy Herrin | set designed by Bunny Christie | costumes designed by Christina Cunningham | lighting by James Farncombe. Produced at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
Cast: Denise Gough, Jacob James Beswick, Nari Blair-Mangat, Alistair Cope, Jacqui Dubois, Sally George, Kevin McGonagle, Nathaniel Martello-White, Barbara Marten, Laura Woodward, Charlotte Gascoyne, David Rubin.
Booking Until: 4th June 2016
Important Information: People, Places and Things contains some strong language, strobe-like lighting effects and short complete lighting blackouts in the auditorium.
People, Places and Things
32-36 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H