A dazzling central performance ensures Duncan Macmillan’s new play about addiction isn’t drowned by the weight of its own ambition.
People, Places and Things is a maelstrom of competing ideas, juggling a central story about a young actress going through the 12 Steps with tangents about identity and acting. Denise Gough plays Emma, an angry, broken young woman who’s addicted to drink and drugs. She rages indeterminately, yo-yoing between desperation and recalcitrance. “Self-medicating is the only way to survive in a world that is broken,” she spits.
Much of the play charts her clashes with her therapist, at whom she spouts Foucault, Derrida and Barthes like a precocious philosophy student. It sounds nauseating, but Gough plays it just right, exposing Emma’s frailty as well as her intellect.
Her performance needed to be strong to compete with the intense staging. Clever projection transforms the stark, tiled stage – somewhere between a drained swimming pool and a public toilet – from nightclub to clinic to bedroom, and as Emma’s psyche starts to unravel, it appears to literally break apart. Tiles fall in reverse, crashing into the sky. Props rise and fall from concealed holes. One particularly impressive scene sees Emma split into multiple versions of herself, all of which writhe and retch in a macabre dance. Other sequences are notable for their impressive verbal choreography, with characters playing out multiple timelines at once, all clamouring to be heard.
The effect is disorientating and confusing, placing you inside Emma’s tortured brain. Some of the more self-referential aspects of the play, exploring the mental toll of pretending to be someone else, feel slightly undercooked; tantalising philosophical offshoots that don’t quite bear fruit. But this is a powerful, visceral play that treads an age old path but takes you somewhere new.