Duncan Macmillan’s ground-breaking play People, Places & Things opened at The National Theatre’s Dorfman in 2015, followed by a West End transfer and a UK touring production by Headlong this year. Lucky enough to catch the latest version in my home city of Bath, where the majestically ornate interior of the Theatre Royal contrasts strikingly with Bunny Christie’s contemporary white padded cell-style design (reminiscent of her most famous project The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), this is a fast-paced drama exploring the frailties of the human condition and how drink and drug addictions don’t discriminate against class or gender.
Lisa Dwyer Hogg is powerfully engaging as Emma the actress addict we go on a roller-coaster journey with, from the point she checks into rehab, to her gruelling battle with the substances that are ruining her life but have such a hold over her as to make her initially resistant to the 12-step programme her doctor and therapist (both played by Matilda Ziegler) insists upon. It’s crucial that Emma be completely honest about what brought her to this point, something she clearly struggles with, having checked in as ‘Nina’. We’re as unclear as the doctors about when she’s lying, or why.
Emma (actually her real name is Sarah) refuses to participate in the group therapy sessions, much to the frustration of her fellow patients, for getting clean is just one factor of a much greater challenge. There are some fine performances from the rest of the cast including Ekow Quartey as Foster, the member of staff who was once a patient. Meanwhile, Macmillan has added new references to Brexit and Trump to keep the dialogue relevant, and the staging and choreography are key to the swinging sense of reality and drug-state. Scene changes are effortlessly achieved by hidden drawer-like compartments within the right-hand side of the set, and Emma mental cold-turkey torment is ingeniously illustrated by a handful of extras eerily appearing out of her bed like something from The Exorcist, a film that is mentioned on more than one occasion.
Just like the National Theatre’s critically acclaimed adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this unashamedly bold production directed by Jeremy Herrin and Holly Race Roughan fully intends to make us writhe with the horror that is addiction; from the shocking way Emma addresses her mother as a ****, to being bombarded with club music prior to and during the interval in order that we remain fully immersed in her chaotic world until we return to our seats.
The finale of Emma graduating from rehab is moving if only because of her mother (Matilda Ziegler) and father’s (Trevor Fox) lack of support and encouragement. They’ve been there too many times before and are unconvinced by her apparent desire to change. She claims to be doing it as much for them as herself but in the end it needs to be an entirely selfish motivation that pulls one out of the mire. Her mother even seems to entice her into her old ways by leaving a box of booze and pills under her bed, but will she succumb?
It’s obvious to see why the plot doesn’t appeal to the usual droves of pensioners that usually patronise this theatre, but was instead swelled by students, who received not only a drink and drug warning but a damn good lesson in modern theatre and play-writing too. It’s the kind of experience that gets the next generation hooked on theatre-going. Though my party years are long since behind me, it’s such a sobering show that I felt compelled to order a slimline tonic in the interval, smug at my quiet, ‘boring’ existence. Emma wonders how much fun can be had at a party with orange squash, but gradually realises that life is worth the sacrifice. Riveting stuff.
People, Places & Things at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 21st October 2017 as part of a UK tour. 2 hours 30 minutes including an interval. Production images by Johan Persson. For more information about the tour and tickets please visit the website.