“I’m the seagull. No, that’s not it. I’m an actress” our ‘Nina’ informs the audience in a stuttering performance. She then turns away, grabs the back of the set and pulls it down. There’s a shock of light, and all goes black.
It’s a starling opening to Duncan MacMillan’s thrilling new play, People, Places and Things, which tackles addiction, drugs and deceit in a heady rush.
Since its sell-out run at the National Theatre last year, People, Places and Things has received almost universal acclaim, and has now come to the Oxford Playhouse as part of its UK tour.
Under Jeremy Herrin’s (Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies) direction, the play is an almost overwhelming sensory experience; a rush of bright light and dizzying blood-pumping sound, serving to make the sensation of addiction and self-destruction vividly, unpleasantly real.
‘Nina’ (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), or Emma as she later calls herself, is a walking “human pharmacy”.
After breaking down during a performance of The Seagull, she has dragged herself literally kicking and screaming to rehab, professing her sincere wish, down the phone, to make herself well again, while also taking a line of cocaine on the reception desk.
At first, all seems to be going well for Emma. The detox seems to go ok, but the group therapy sessions where they ‘rehearse’ prove to be more of challenge.
Too cynical to buy in to the concept of collective healing, she spurns the whole system and finds herself, by the end of act one, on the edge of relapse.
Why is it that an actress should be so unwilling to engage in role play? One of the clever features of this play is the organic link it traces between acting and addiction.
Perhaps it takes an actress, someone who deals in things false, to see through the artifice of modern life, to the lack of meaning beneath.
But perhaps it is the drugs that provide her with the role she most wants to play? Herself.
Unlike many rehab or addiction dramas, People, Places and Things also has the daring to look beyond the warm, caring world of the rehab and question the value of the therapy itself.
While in the facility, the patients prepare for the inevitable confrontations they will have to face when they are released – the people they hurt, abandoned or betrayed.
It’s the most important stage in her recovery and the most exhausting.
Though Bunny Christie’s (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) white tile set design may make the place appear sterile and decrepit, the facility offers Emma a sanctuary.
While other characters come and go, Emma remains constantly on stage, the action revolving around her.
How can an addict who deludes herself with visions of Hedda Gabler, and who wants control every encounter she has, cope with the real world?
But what will happen when the daily agony of real personalities and the pain of rejection reveal themselves anew?
The agonising reunion which inevitably plays out with her family laughs in the face of those who believe in redemption, or stories with beginnings, middles and end, the very thing lesson that Emma was taught.
It is Dwyer Hogg’s responsibility to hold the entire thing together, even at its weakest, most predictable, moments. She is raw and agile, capable of forming a character who is frustrating and yet the more pitiful because of it.
“You are a human grenade”, Emma is told. It’s true, and it is Dwyer who gives her, and the play, its explosive charge.
People Places and Things is touring until the end of November.
2017 tour dates
Until Saturday, Oxford Playhouse 17 – 21 October, Theatre Royal, Bath 24 – 28 October, Bristol Old Vic 31 Oct – 4 Nov, Exeter Northcott Theatre 7 – 11 November, Nuffield Theatre, Southampton 14 – 18 November, Liverpool Playhouse 21 – 25 November, Cambridge Arts Theatre.
People, Place and Things
Lisa Dwyer Hogg gives People, Place and Things an explosive charge. It is a play that is an almost overwhelming sensory experience.