In the interval of People, Places and Things I did something I almost never do and turned down a glass of wine. Somehow after watching a woman wrestle for more than an hour with her drug and alcohol addiction, I just didn’t feel like a drink. The friend I’d bumped into laughed at me. He said he knew it was bad, but actually the play – I think he meant the club scenes, the couple of brief but charged moments when thudding bass and dancers filled the stage – had made him want to go out.
I teased him, but I kind of knew what he meant. Because the power of People, Places and Things very much lies in Duncan Macmillan’s ability to give both those feelings – the instinct to abstain and the desire for excess – not exactly equal billing, not equal attention, but kind of the same weight. It’s in that tension between the nightmare of addiction and the glorious rush towards oblivion that the whole play rests: the horror-show that is drug and alcohol dependence, how prevalent it is, how it tears people’s lives apart, and yet how most of us continue (even though we know that these things can tumble out of hand impossibly quickly) to flirt with excess regularly, just because it is fun.
So there’s a woman and she needs help. Her name isn’t Nina, but it might be Emma, or something else, or maybe she doesn’t really have a name in the way we think of names – not in the way a name has more meaning than just being convenient legal shorthand for a person. She doesn’t really know who she is.
At first it seems like that must be the result of her myriad out-of-control drug and alcohol addictions, inevitably connected to the black-outs and memory loss that come with the territory. Because not-Nina takes whatever, whenever and wherever and with whoever. Just to get herself to rehab she needs a few glasses of red wine and some gin (to settle her nerves), prescription anxiety medication, non-prescription anxiety medication (to take the edge off), some very very strong non-prescription anxiety medication (not-Nina has a few GPs), and then some speed to get her active. And a bit of coke.
This is a woman who thinks she’s still in control of it all, that she can keep all the plates spinning – because until very recently she had been. But now there are plates fucking everywhere, there are smashed plates all over the floor and she’s not even certain they were hers to start with, because who exactly is she anyway, when she’s at home.
Not-Nina doesn’t want to get better, exactly, but she needs a certificate that she’s not a risk to future employers so she can go back to work. She’s devoted to acting and she doesn’t know how to be herself, which sounds like a cod-truth about actors that should be very shit, but through some combination of Macmillan’s writing and Denise Gough’s magnificent central performance the whole thing takes on far more depth than you’d think possible. This is a portrait of a woman who’s as addicted to performing as she is to substances and knows she can’t keep both, but it’s also about why the best things in life are the very best things.
There’s a reason so many people in theatre drink too much (sorry, but that’s just a fact) and I think it has a lot to do with something Macmillan hits on here about the desire for oblivion and fiction and beautiful moments – theatre is one of the best pretend games there is, you have to sit in the dark with no phone and just silently agree with a bunch of strangers that for the next few hours, none of you care about reality. Suspension of disbelief? It’s a suspension of the whole fucking world. Not-Nina finds reality difficult and so do lots of people, god, I mean have you seen the papers recently? Reality is HORRIBLE, why wouldn’t you just want a fucking drink.
But of course, if you try and sustain that high forever, you’re going to come crashing horribly down sooner or later.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the script is great: complex and knotty and fascinating, and best of all it only gets better as it goes on, so that at the end of the first half you think ‘PHEW, well,’ only to find that at the end of the second half you are literally white-knuckled. But as great as the script is, it’s probably Denise Gough’s central performance that everyone will quite rightly remember and continue to talk about long after the show has come down.
Gough is phenomenal, she is literally a phenomenon, not least because as good as she is, you’re never watching her thinking, “Gosh, what a jolly good bit of acting she just did.” You just completely believe her and sympathise with her, and it’s not really until you stop watching the play that you think about what a magnificent achievement that is. Possibly-Emma is often actively unsympathetic (addiction has never notoriously made people more sedate and attractive), but I barely noticed even when she was being badly behaved, because Gough’s performance meant I always understood her.
She’s ably supported by a very strong cast, too – especially Barbara Marten, who differentiates beautifully between several characters, all of whom feel perfectly observed. As Possibly-Emma’s doctor and mother confessor, she radiates quiet intelligence and makes you hope lots of people like her really exist. I hope you meet one if you ever need one.
The morning after I saw People, Places and Things, my grandfather died quite suddenly. He was the sort of jolly old booze-hound who seemed like he might go on forever and I was surprised to realise he wouldn’t. ‘Can’t believe I still have to try and file a review,’ I thought vaguely, a few hours later. ‘Weird to have to act like all of that matters now.’
But then in the day that followed I found I couldn’t stop thinking about this play – less about addiction than about family, about the family Emma finds in the group when she is in rehab and about her real family, how we disappoint and let each other down and the capacity for forgiveness and love.
A play that can rattle around in your head all day when the real world is being mad is quite remarkable, and People, Places and Things says as much about what a thing it is to be alive as it does about addiction. It wears its impressiveness lightly to remain always simply, wonderfully human.