People, Places and Things, Wyndham’s Theatre – Review

"'People, Places and Things' Play by Duncan Macmillan performed in the Dorfman Theatre at the Royal National Theatre"

Denise Gough in People, Places and Things

There is a wonderful podcast called Honest Actors that was recently put on hold. This was such sad news because listeners were able to regularly listen to an interview of a theatre actor who commented on what it is really like to be a working actor, the rejection involved, and the whole question of self-confidence, of knowing who you are in a context of judgement.

One of the recent interviewees was the Irish actress Denise Gough. I really enjoyed hearing that in periods of little acting work she would go back to her family and the importance of children in her life. She stressed how important valuing yourself outside of your acting ability and most importantly acting employment is.

On April 3rd, Gough won an Olivier Award for her role in the new play People, Places and Things written by Duncan Macmillan and directed by Jeremy Herrin (who also directed the memorable The Nether, No Quarter and Hero) and I was reminded that I just had to run out and go see it. Indeed, Gough and Herrin make a thrilling portrait of survival and belief in oneself when any minute, a human grenade could go off.

The play introduces us to an actress in her 30s, let’s call her Sarah, who is a drug addict and alcoholic and who checks herself into a rehab institution. While she knows she would be in trouble if she hadn’t done this, she has trouble admitting her addiction and where it comes from during her first weeks at the centre. It turns out she had a brother who died recently and parents who do not communicate or support her life choices. But can one really only blame those elements for her addictions? She certainly refuses to believe so.

And she’s right to! Why do we always look for a reason for someone’s depression, she asks, when it’s actually the world that is screwed up? Why always point a finger? This point actually reminds me of an explosive production by the Schaubühne of Enemy of the People, which brought up the same questions.

There is an interesting contradiction, however, in how on one hand Sarah doesn’t want to rationally explain her illness and on the other hand demands the certainty that she will leave the centre as quickly as possible, pass a “test” and be given a piece of paper to ensure she is not a risk to a future employer.

So far, she has constantly lived in the certainty that drugs will satisfy her without fail, while balancing the risk, uncertainty and irregular nature of her acting career. Following her stay in the centre, she knows nothing will ever be certain again, but that work and love will be all that matters.

This is a really exciting play by Macmillan, with philosophy introduced through Foucault or Baudrillard, group scenes with dialogue that made me gasp and want new plays about each of those centre patients and speeches that I know actors in the audience will love. One in particular regarding why Sarah is an actress and couldn’t live without acting is so familiar but I also know it can only be uttered by someone in either a state of excitement or real trust. Acting is vulnerable enough, but explaining to someone why one acts can be too.

A thin line is also brought up between trying to be good to others and having to be selfish to get there. The rehab centre encourages its patients to come to terms with themselves and apologise openly to the loved ones they have hurt. When this happens in reality in a final scene, Sarah’s father points out the selfishness in her apology. In these extreme situations, how can we stay emphatic if we don’t know what the other is going through, how hard they’ve worked?

While on the subject of this family relationship: upon finally discovering Sarah’s mother after she kept mentioning her throughout the play, I wondered whether Sarah would really call her a c*** and ask her on the phone to throw away her medication right before signing herself into rehab. But I suppose my argument forgets how high she was.

The set and lighting designs by Bunny Christie and James Farncombe highlight Sarah’s nightmare, fear of death and vicious circles. In two scary bad trip sequences with multiple silhouettes looking just like Sarah emerging from under the covers of her care bed and the walls, Sarah’s description of auditions and the countless girls sitting in the waiting who look just like her receives a new haunting dimension.

Gough is also a phenomenon in this production. The detail in her drunken movements and easy delivery of Macmillan’s words make her unforgettable. This is the kind of role you sensed her wanting to sink her teeth into during the Honest Podcast, and here, you feel her giving her heart and tears to her audience and the world.

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