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People, Places And Things at the National theatre

Published 2 September 2015

What’s it all about?

Emma is an addict so checks herself into rehab, one sneaky line of cocaine in reception to take the edge off (not to mention the gin, red wine, speed, anxiety medicine and weed, Emma is very nervous you understand). The only problem is she’s not quite ready to admit she has a problem. In fact, her name may not even be Emma and the dead brother she keeps citing as the reason for her self-destruction might not have ever existed.

If that sounds a bit disorientating, take a deep breath and prepare for Duncan Macmillan’s beast of a play to knock you over, punch you in the stomach, pick you up, brush you off and do it all over again until you’re left thoroughly shaken.

Jeremy Herrin’s magnificent production of this blistering new play is a heart-racing ride boasting a career-defining performance from Denise Gough. Trust us, you’re going to want to remember that name.

Who’s in it?

Gough stars as Emma, a spiky, intelligent and disillusioned actor who’s found her way to rehab in order to get a piece of paper saying she is fit for work. The only problem is she definitely isn’t; Gough makes you feel nauseous just watching her. If that sounds like an odd thing to say, spend three minutes in her company and you’ll know exactly what I mean. With eyes barely focused and feet unstable, Gough’s portrayal is breathtaking and unbearable in equal measure. Every emotion, from venomous rage to the pure desire she feels for her many chosen substances, is made physical; you see emotion flooding through her every cell and in turn it filters into your own. It’s a staggering feat that balances Emma’s physical fragility with robust mental anguish, leaving Gough seemingly aged 20 years and hollowed out by the end of the play. It might just leave you feeling the same.

She’s supported by a strong ensemble including Barbara Marten, who turns your blood cold in a brief turn as Emma’s resigned mother, and Nathaniel Martello-White, who brings warmth and calm as fellow addict Mark. But this is truly Gough’s show and, as Emma, she has a current of electricity running through her that you never know whether it will light her up gloriously or snuff her out entirely. Try taking your eyes off that.

What should I look out for?

Herrin’s inventive direction that embraces all the theatrical potential of Macmillan’s portrayal of addiction. There’s no simple moralistic messages here; Emma’s adoration for the vices that allow her to make the world “more perfect” and help her exist amongst everyone’s moral ambivalence to the horrors of the world are shown in all their heavenly light and hellish consequences. As the chemicals kick in the music rises slightly, lights flicker and the world comes all the more vibrant, but when she’s in the crippling agony of withdrawal, strobe lighting pushes you out of reality and dozens of doppelgängers appear cradling her pain. Surreal, disorientating, nightmarish and exciting all at once, Herrin has created an exhilarating trip.

In a nutshell?

A magnificent Denise Gough gives a staggering, career-defining performance in Duncan Macmillan’s exhilarating drama that proves you don’t need chemicals to get your heart racing.

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Will I like it?

People, Places And Things isn’t easy watching. To say Gough takes you through the emotional wringer would be an understatement, and you might just find yourself having to catch your breath on a bench outside the National Theatre before you can face getting on the Tube. But isn’t that exactly what theatre should do? Some plays have the ability to leave you changed, to bruise you and throw you out of the auditorium shaken and bewildered. This may just be one of those plays for you. It definitely was for me.

People, Places And Things is booking until 4 November. You can book tickets through the National Theatre’s website.


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