National Theatre’s People, Places & Things, Wyndham’s Theatre, review: ‘Unflinching portrait of addiction’

Denish Gough and Nathaniel Martello-White in People Places and Things. Picture: Johan Persson

Denish Gough and Nathaniel Martello-White in People Places and Things. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Emma lies, professionally and pathologically.

She’s a struggling actress, and her zeal for living lives other than her own is the biggest barrier to her recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction.

Duncan Macmillan’s searing piece, which transfers after a sold-out National Theatre run, is dizzyingly metatheatrical, unpicking layers of stage artifice to illustrate the stripping back of the rehab process.

Denise Gough’s gives a star-making turn as slippery Emma.

It’s a physical tour-de-force, withdrawal manifesting in jittery tics and a compulsive desire to wrench herself out of her body, and Gough fully earns our emotional investment by not once courting it.

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She fearlessly embraces the character’s abrasive swagger, smart-alec scepticism and messy contradictions.

Emma rails against AA’s insistence on a higher power – how will spiritual surrender help her regain agency? – and Macmillan maintains a fascinating ambivalence towards the 12-step programme, equal parts cure and cult.

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If addicts use to avoid reality, surely swapping relapse triggers (the titular people, places and things) for the AA bubble is a limited solution.

And is theatre a path to truth, or just another escapist drug? Part of the audience is seated onstage, so we’re reflected back at ourselves, uncomfortably cast as possible enablers.

Jeremy Herrin’s Headlong production vividly illustrates Emma’s subjective experience.

Hallucinatory bricks fly out of the walls of Bunny Christie’s clinical white-tiled set, multiple Emmas appear from nowhere, and Tom Gibbons’ pounding soundscape drowns out those trying to help.

Though the supporting characters are underdeveloped, Nathaniel Martello-White’s shrewd veteran impresses, as do Barbara Marten’s resolute authority figures and Kevin McMonagle’s taciturn parent.

Macmillan sometimes overeggs the metaphors, but Gough gives his discourse a visceral immediacy. There’s no easy closure in this unflinching, darkly funny and heartbreaking portrait – Emma’s work is only just beginning.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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