Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Theatre review: People, Places and Things

Emma (Denise Gough) is an actress who, halfway through a performance of The Seagull, loses sight of the difference between herself and her character, forgets her lines and is soon collapsing onstage. There's a prosaic reason for this blurring of identity: Emma is an alcoholic and addicted to various - mostly prescription - drugs, and soon she's checking herself into a rehab centre. The physical withdrawal is traumatic but over comparatively quickly, but what she finds the hardest is the the next part of her treatment, when in group therapy she's asked to reveal something of her true self and prepare to go back out into the world. The latest collaboration between the National Theatre and Headlong, and the first since both companies got new artistic directors, Duncan Macmillan's People, Places and Things attempts to shed a tragicomic light on the subject of addiction.

On a box-like traverse set from Bunny Christie, containing hydraulics that pull scenes apart like a confused mind, Jeremy Herrin directs what turns out to be a very uneven evening.

Macmillan's play builds up to a genuinely brutal conclusion, as Emma confronts her parents (Barbara Marten and Kevin McMonagle,) whose reaction is far from a fairytale ending of acceptance and forgiveness. But it gets there in a decidedly patchy way. One problem is the attempt to tell the story of recovery through black comedy. Plenty of laughs tonight suggested the rest of the audience disagreed with me, but for me the humour largely fell flat. It's only really Nathaniel Martello-White's Mark, on his third attempt to get clean and brutally honest about the pitfalls, who hits the mark.

I can see how, on paper, the idea of making the central character an actor is appealing: Someone who plays other people for a living as a metaphor for someone who avoids confronting who she really is. But the theme dominates the evening, and Emma's thespian self-absorption is so obnoxious it left me feeling that the playwright must really hate actors, which is unfortunate in his line of work. And at times the rants about the reality of working in theatre get so knowing as to be positively arch.

There's a lot that almost works about People, Places and Things, like the use of projections and multiple Emma clones to suggest her fracturing mental state during withdrawal. But the energy levels are never quite high enough to sell it, and the group therapy sessions at the heart of the story are perhaps a bit too authentic, and just not interesting. It's not a terrible show but one that could and should have been much better; and a play about rehab actually ends up saying a lot more about the author's feelings about his work, than it does about the subject matter.

People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan is booking in repertory until the 4th of November at the National Theatre's Dorfman.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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