People, Places & Things**** (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: September 1, 2015 in Theatre

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The National’s third collaboration with Headlong is a gritty and probing play by Duncan Macmillan that looks at a rehab clinic a few rungs down the ladder from the likes of The Priory. Yes, the central character is from showbiz, but she is no star, just a jobbing mid-30s actor in pub theatres who we first see breaking down during a performance of The Seagull. Her name is Emma (or Sarah? or Lucy?), a self-absorbed, controlling wreck who plays roles in real life as much as on stage and tells her life story by relating the plot of Hedda Garbler. Playing her, Denise Gough makes her so distant and abrasive at the outset that we wish her journey to be as tortuous as possible, but the triumph of this performance is the manner in which Emma’s vulnerability. pain and sense of helplessness slowly emerge. On Bunny Christie’s traverse stage, sets appear from below and above, facilitating the fast flow of Jeremy Herrin’s production, one that is punctuated by hallucinatory scenes, drunken raves and support group meetings in which all of the group talk over each other; however, the most striking moments are those of quiet insight. Barbara Martens is highly impressive in the triple roles of Emma’s rational doctor, her sympathetic therapist and her icy cold mother and Nathaniel Martello-White exudes realism and warmth as the fellow patient who befriends her. Macmillan starts out as if intending to take us through the rehab process, but then moves the play in far more interesting directions by questioning the falsehoods in modern lives that are so often reinforced through substance abuse. Emma rehearses with the support group a future confrontation with her parents, preparing to go back to face the people, places and things in her daily life. When the confrontation takes place, with the same three actors, she speaks the same words as if reading her lines, still playing a part. Her body may be clean, but the malady that had driven her to drugs and alcohol remains. Emma is an actor, so she acts, unable to separate fantasy from reality, but Macmillan is giving us a mirror for us all to hold up to our own lives and ask searching questions. Powerful stuff.

Performance date: 31 August 2015

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