I’m massively late to the People, Places and Things party and had read the most interesting responses in anticipation of not seeing it, but then one of my pro-active, up for everything mates suggested she queue for day tickets for us whilst I was at work. I’m rarely organised enough to actually book commercial and large-scale things I want to see, and is this instance, my friend was a complete fucking saviour because fuck. Me. This play. Her work. I could live inside Denise Gough’s performance forever, in a completely non-sexual sort of way. It’s not just her exquisite embodiment of Nina/Emma/Sarah/Lucy though, Duncan Macmillan’s issue-driven script touches -no, beats the shit out of- so many nerves: drug addiction, life as an actor, dysfunctional families, mental health and that living in the world is so unbearable that it can break you. The script is powerful, understated, hilarious and dark. Is rips your chest open, finds all of those hidden tender spots we soothe with medication, busyness, booze or whatever your addictions are, gives them a good poke, then dashes off to find another. Sure, it’s a sanitised view of drug addiction, but it’s not really about that. It’s about reaching rock bottom and not knowing who the fuck you are anymore and barely keeping it together from moment to moment. The depiction of that emotional state of hanging from a cliff by a frayed rope over an abyss of global misery and despair is so goddamn accurate that it feels like Macmillan is living inside my guts, or my guts of only a few years ago. I know Nina/Emma/Sarah/Lucy’s pain so acutely that People, Places and Things was the therapy I refused for so long, a catharsis and a reassurance that I am/you are strong and living is worth the fight.
I’ve been in a really good place for the last year or so, and OK for the last couple of years. Before that? Late 2010 was the start of a downward spiral that lead to, reflectively, what was probably a breakdown in spring 2012. Factors completely out of my control forced me to me to give up acting (the career of the play’s protagonist), the thing that had been the focus of my life since I was ten years old, that I had spent years of my life training for and then actually doing and loving, that my entire identity revolved around. It wasn’t a conscious decision initially, but the realisation of what I was doing/what I had to do broke me. I lost all sense of self, like Gough’s character who clings to the roles she plays because she has no idea who she actually is. I fantasised about killing myself or running away, I cried when I woke up in the morning because I was awake, in my life. I hurt people around me but was so blinded by my own pain that I couldn’t see it. I refused help on the grounds that factors outside of my control were causing these feelings. I didn’t turn to drugs (couldn’t afford to), but looking back, I’m amazed I’m alive. Macmillan gets it; whether or not he actually experienced it himself is irrelevant, but his understanding of this drowning despair and Gough’s embodiment of it resonate with my memories of living it.
I suppose I ought to talk about all the other excellent production values and creative choices of People, Places and Things but it’s probably been covered by every other critic that saw the show, either at the National or in the West End. Gough’s character journey, Barbara Marten’s subtle contrasting work as the doctor/therapist/mum, the ensemble work in the therapy scenes, the devastating interaction between Nina/Emma/Sarah/Lucy and her parents in her childhood bedroom, the hopeful ending are all great. This could easily be a totally bleak story, but Macmillan uses humour liberally and on concluding, we realise this is a story of hope.
Though it is Nina/Emma/Sarah/Lucy’s story, there are only hints of detail from the other characters. From the audience’s perspective, it would have been great to see more complexity from them but from the lead’s point of view, she’s so self-absorbed that she can’t see more than broad brushstrokes for other people. Her detox and withdrawal was handled well with stylised lighting, sound and multiplying selves grotesquely slithering out from her bed and the walls, but there’s a cleanliness and functionality to these patients (like the rest of the play) that doesn’t accurately reflect the reality of rehab facilities.
These issues are minor though, and dwarfed by the overwhelming brilliance of the rest of the production. Though Duncan Macmillan’s previous work has established him as a powerful voice in contemporary theatre, People, Places and Things indicates his greatness and Denise Gough’s Olivier Award-winning performance introduces her to the ranks of the modern greats. An unmissable production.