FringeReview UK 2016
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, Duncan Macmillan’s acclaimed People Places and Things transfers from the National Theatre Dorfman to Wyndham’s Theatre. It establishes Denise Gough as a performer of the front rank. The set’s designed by Bunny Christie, with music by sound by Matthew Herbert and Gibbons.
Duncan Macmillan’s acclaimed People Places and Things transfers from the National Theatre Dorfman to Wyndham’s Theatre. It establishes Denise Gough as a performer of the front rank. Directed by Jeremy Herrin, set designed as a curvy white box by Bunny Christie, with music by Matthew Herbert and alarmingly distortive sound by Tom Gibbons.
The title refers to the mechanisms that trigger addict relapses. Emma (her stage name, really Sarah, and sometimes Nina) is apt to trigger these in spectacular fashion, and Denise Gough’s performance is more than even that. It’s a stand-out exhausting role, one of the finest of recent times.
Nina because that’s where we see her falling into the seagull she says she’s not and collapsing with an addict’s nosebleed on stage in full 1896 dress as her Konstantin grabs her calling her not Nina but Emma. It’s one of several coups in this absorbing play about AA and the road to recovery. Like many it’s about relapse and re-admittance too. Polly Bennett’s movement becomes crucial.
This splits the play nearly into two halves. Emma is incredibly bright quoting Foucault, pretending her name’s Nina, and when she’s dried out Barbara Marten’s doctor/therapist attempts to get her to admit the depth of her addiction and its triggers, which she does with consummate Jesuistical skills when Emma refutes higher powers (a theme of AA and this play). It’s disorienting that she feels guilt at her dead brother Mark’s demise, similar to her own near-death though a bit more fatal.
Mark is also confusingly the name of her critical friend (the redemptive parallels being deliberate), a man with a terrible past who’s sussed her bullshitting, savagely interrupting one of her stories denying her life story. ‘It’s the plot of Hedda Gabler’ he confronts her privately (another coup). He’s seen her in several plays, listing them – pub plays mean alcoholics can drink alone without notice. So later when he doesn’t know what quixotic means – Macmillan wants to run with a joke about Wily Cayote too fondly – we feel Macmillan has failed to do his own character – consummately wrought by Nathaniel Martello-White – some justice. Macmillan is trying to flesh out a cipher and hasn’t quite nailed it. It’s a small flaw but in performance Martello-White knowingly dulls the edge of Mark’s knowing text as we have it, for good reason. The therapy sessions too a a beat too long on occasion, and that’s the script.
The most spectacular moment comes as it often does at the close of the first act. Emma spoils Marks’ graduation party and suddenly out of her bed jump eight other identically clad and haired Emmas, as she relapses – this is Bennett’s supreme movement as movement co-ordinator. Next thing she’s back, and it’s Mark, now working at AA (the previous worker fatally relapses when his dog died) suddenly recognizing her, that sets her on her recovery path. Marten and Martello-White tease out Emma’s fighting and her recovery is slow, believable – we get a rapid-cut pattern of group meetings like Macmillan’s Lungs, recalling the fact that Macmillan has a special way with the passing of time, deployed here less as this is a more conventionally solid play, despite the prancing Emmas.
But however touching, it’s her parents towards whom Emma has role-played with the group who chillingly deny her closure, or forgiveness, the mum played by Martens (transference joke: so the doctor really is like her mum). ‘It should have been you’ remarks Dad about Mark’s death in a deadlier bit of transference. ‘It should be you that we buried. At least we’d know you were out of trouble.’ Emma’s family won’t forgive the broken family, the lack of its continuance (she’s nearly forty her mother insists). Her mother offers her the box of drugs she’s not after all chucked. Take them and get out, or stay. This is more than tough love, and Emma’s response is to access her AA network and we finally see her using that Quixotic joke. It’s a corporate video with absurd self-affirmation elements built in. Only having laughed at them with Mark, she knows now they mean her own life.
Jeremy Herrin and his cast are almost beyond praise. The tiny flaws can be ironed out and should be, since this masterpiece in the making is a pivotal unexpected smash-hit few expected. It speaks to our condition rather more intimately than even its author expected.