Whenever I review I always hope I act with discretion while making the occasional note to refer back to after the performance. I never want to distract my neighbor from the story that is unfolding on stage. There was no chance, however, of this being an issue throughout People, Places, Things at Wyndham’s Theatre – the action is arresting, and the performances thoroughly engaging. This production was so good it stopped me writing; I could not take my eyes off it for a second.
Duncan Macmillan’s play, a co-production between The National Theatre and Headlong, enjoyed a successful run at The Dorfman last Autumn, and as the vibrancy of this production spills out into the auditorium it is all too clear why it sold out – its transfer is utterly deserved. In an attempt to recreate the intimacy of the National’s smallest theatre, the decision has been made to have onstage seating, which only adds to the slight claustrophobia of the piece – not forgetting the idea of constant observation – both of which are hugely apt given the themes explored. Macmillan’s play takes a frank and honest look at rehab predominantly through the eyes of its central character, Emma, an actress with a drink and drugs addiction. Macmillan’s text, under the deft direction of Headlong’s Artistic Director, Jeremy Herrin, crackles with sharp and intelligent wit and much needed humour, without which the audience could find the subject matter too much as ideas of family, humanity, identity and faith are thrown into the mix. This is a wonderful example of where skilled and sensitive writing and theatre making meet.
The production has a great economy and sense of ensemble about it, yet does not compromise on style and visual inventiveness; the sequences where Emma is suffering withdrawals are inspired. The company and set seem to effortlessly transist from one location to the next with only Emma remaining on stage for the whole production as if events are leading her life, pulling her from one event to the next, as opposed to her being firmly in the driving seat.
Undoubtedly, Macmillan has penned an incredibly strong central character in Emma, and the performance is executed with panache, vitality, vulnerability and humour by the ever-skilled, captivating Denise Gough. All praise you have heard of Gough’s performance is absolutely warranted – and then some. This portrayal is incredibly well crafted, detailed and effortlessly believable. Whilst this production is incredibly executed by all involved, it is Gough’s performance as Emma that holds it all together; from the very first moment we see her having an onstage meltdown while playing Nina in The Seagull within the opening scene, we know that we are about to see something wonderful. Special mention must also go to the brilliant Barbara Marten, who plays all the doctors in the clinic – all resembling Emma’s mother – and Emma’s mother.
As an audience member there is something incredibly reassuring in seeing such assured and proficient storytelling unfold in front of you. No matter what the subject matter you can breath a sigh of relief knowing that you are in incredibly safe and caring hands, leaving you no other option but to sit back and become engrossed. This is one of those productions you simply must not let pass you by.