running until 18 June
People, Places and Things is one of those shows that I missed on its original run, only to kick myself when the rave reviews started flooding in. So I headed to the West End to catch the acclaimed show’s by the National Theatre and Headlong just in time before it closes this week. And it was well worth it to see the mind-blowing performance of Olivier Award winner Denise Gough, who anchors this brave, bold and haunting – yet at times belly laugh-inducing – piece, which is well on its way to already being a contemporary classic.
Gough plays Emma (or Nina? Or Sarah?), a woman checking herself into rehab. Her life has spiralled downwards since the death of her brother two years ago. That’s a lie, her brother is fit and well. Oh obviously, she never had a brother. No, really, he’s dead and it’s tearing her apart.
You see where we are heading – our confidence in what is real and what isn’t is in constant flux throughout the play. Emma’s own grip on reality is uncertain, amalgamated by her “chameleon” personality as we struggle to discover the ‘real’ her; even by the end, we’re not sure we ever glimpsed all the way into her mind or soul. There are seemingly infinite layers to her character and it’s a thrill to see Gough peel them back one by one, only to add several more. We may be bemused, confounded even, but we are utterly gripped.
For a character who is probably on the brink of death, given the cocktail of drugs that her body has absorbed in a myriad of ways, Gough’s portrayal is so full of life. It is full of pain, yes – pain that comes flooding out through her verbose speeches, her wild physicality and her frustrating refusals to engage. Yet it is also full of humour, vitality, rudeness, at times a dose of mean spirit and a whole ladleful of sparky defensiveness. Within the play, Emma is a hard person to love, and the climactic scene in her childhood bedroom, finally speaking openly with her parents, is heartbreaking but wonderfully written in its decision not to fall into happily-ever-after cliche. Yet the audience warm to the character instinctively; Gough’s performance is seductive in its unashamed exposure of humanity at its most raw. As she slurs her way through a disastrous performance of The Seagull, then stumbles into the rehab reception still smoking, snorting and vociferously abusing her mother on the end of the phone, the opening scenes are undeniably very funny. Gough manages to not only swing from humour to tragedy, but to encompass all these contradictory facets of the character and narrative in a single moment. It’s a truly stunning, unmissable, career-making performance.
However, what is so wonderful about the show is that it’s not purely a vehicle for Gough’s talent. It is also an example of an expertly-crafted script by Duncan MacMillan, which captures the rhythms of naturalistic speech deftly as well as launching us into vivid, hyper-theatrical scenes as Emma gets high, has withdrawal symptoms and gets lost in her own nightmares. The staging (with set design by the always impressive Bunny Christie) reflects this, its clean white walls and ceiling somehow both unnatural in their shiny consistency, and instantly recognisable as a clinical space. The shift back to Emma’s parents’ home in the penultimate scene dumps her – and us – back in the ‘real’ world with a jolt.
With Gough such a mighty presence, it may be hard for the supporting cast to make their impact. Yet there is impressive work from Barbara Marten, firstly as the Doctor, then the Therapist and finally as Emma’s mum. It is this final part in which she particularly excels as a mother whose unconditional love is tested to breaking point. Nathaniel Martello-White also puts in a strong and subtle performance as Mark.
But ultimately, the night belongs to Denise Gough. An unforgettable performance that hits you like a ton of bricks and will burn in your memory for a long time to come.
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