THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS
Denise Gough has won rave reviews for her central performance as a drug-and-booze-fuelled actress trying to detox in Duncan Macmillan's play, which first opened at the National last autumn and is now at Wyndham's in the West End. Having finally caught up with this Headlong production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, the first and obvious thing to say is that the rave reviews are richly deserved; Gough is simply terrific. Like Mark Rylance as Jonny Rooster Byron in Jerusalem, she makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role. That's my personal definition of great stage acting.
However, Macmillan's play left me strangely unengaged, and I'm still trying to work out why. It could be that I was perched in a restricted view seat up in the balcony, looking down at the action, but that has never stopped me getting engaged with lots of other plays in the past. As a regular patron of the cheap seats in the National Theatre's vast Olivier auditorium, I am quite used to being a long way from the action on stage.
It could be that addiction isn't a subject that has ever touched me personally, or anyone I know well. But the same lack of personal experience has never stopped me feeling empathy with characters in other plays I have seen. I'm thinking of Tomcat, The Effect, The Curious Incident, Blue/Orange and a host of other productions that have had me on the edge of my seat.
Herrin's approach to People, Places & Things relies a bit too heavily on emphatic stage effects -- very loud techno music and deafening bangs, accompanied by flashy lighting. Right from the start, it is clear that Gough's character Emma is an unreliable narrator of her own past. As she staggers into a detox clinic after breaking down on stage, she is over-articulate and very unpleasant. She lies and makes excuses for her serial inability to tell the truth: 'It is not lying -- it is because there is no truth to begin with.' As she starts her treatment, Emma is a long way from accepting that she needs to give up drugs and alcohol for good: 'Drugs and alcohol have never let me down, they have always loved me,' she declares.
Macmillan has deliberately chosen to keep Emma on stage throughout, so we never get another perspective on her. Thinking again of Tomcat, Blue/Orange and other plays about a doctor-patient relationship, I wanted to hear the other characters discussing Emma behind her back, opening up a window of dramatic irony for the audience. While the repeated confrontations between the increasingly bolshie Emma and the other members of her therapy group are never boring, I felt there was something missing from the way the playwright tells the story.
What may be lacking is an element of 'what if?' By that I mean an element of make-believe. Tomcat, for example, asks us to imagine a world where an apparently normal 12-year-old girl can be locked away in a secure unit so that doctors can test her as a suspected psychopath. It's several steps away from the real world we live in, but it's plausible. But People, Places & Things never challenges the audience to use their imaginations in this way.
Emma's incomplete recovery leads her to walk out of the clinic, only to return at the start of the second act, shabby and distressed. Gradually, she seems to be returning to normality and finally 'graduates' from the clinic. But the play's not over, and it ends with a scene that finally had me fully engaged. Emma returns to her parents' house, and makes a carefully rehearsed apology for her past behaviour, while promising that this time she won't relapse. But she gets an ice-cold reception from both of them, who make clear they really don't care much if Emma lives or dies. Suddenly it becomes clear that some of the things Emma has been saying about her family, including the death of a brother, have had at least a good element of truth to them. Her mother (a great performance by Barbara Marten) has even kept the large plastic box of drugs that Emma asked her to throw away, and has placed it helpfully under her bed.
This scene gives a different perspective on Emma, and for the first time I felt some empathy with her. She ends the play auditioning for a very minor acting job that she almost certainly won't get, but she's clearly in a much better state than she was at the start of the play. It's an ambiguous coda which seems well judged.