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A CurtainUp London London Review
People, Places and Things

"Your addiction . . . it's a parasite and will fight for its own survival." — Doctor
People, Places and Things
The Company (Photo: Johan Persson)
As the play opens we are in the nineteenth century with actors in Victorian costume. Is this a play about addiction through the centuries starting with Victorians' penchant for laudanum? But no, the scene is from Chekhov's The Seagull with the actress playing Nina at breaking point.

Nina (Denise Gough) or Emma as she tells us is her real name and she is on the phone to her mother asking her to box up all the drugs, alcohol, prescription medicines and other substances in her flat. Emma is about to be admitted to a rehab unit. She is asked to hand over her laptop, phone and any electronic devices for ordering supplies while in rehab. A patient (Kevin McMonagle) stripped to the waist with "The End" drawn on his torso creates confusion in the reception area.

Emma, who says her name is Nina after hearing that complete honesty is called for, is asked what she might have consumed in the last 48 hours. She lists a large quantity of benzodiazepine which she says she was prescribed by four different general practitioners, alcohol, cannabis and several other substances. "How did you get here today Nina?" asks the member of staff. "I drove," says Emma in a humorous moment.

The doctor (Barbara Marten) then shocks us with a stool sample in a kidney shaped medical plastic container which she takes a bite out of. It's her falafel lunch! The doctor takes a medical history from Emma and she refuses the prescription offered to get her off the addiction forming drugs and alcohol.

The play then takes on a surreal dimension. We had a glimpse when Foster (Alistair Cope) was seen in duplicate but are unprepared for the scene now in front if us. Emma has cloned with another six women — same size, same hair, same clothes — writhing and scratching and convulsing and gesticulating to emerge from her bed. The noise is deafening, the lighting pulses cruelly and we know we are watching mental and physical chaos.

The Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous principles of the 12 step programme are explained to Emma, as are the play's title as the avoidance of People with whom you use drugs, the Places where you score and use and the Things that act as a trigger to use.

Emma is persuaded to join the group for group therapy which she resists. A recovering addict Mark (the empathetic Nathaniel Martello-White) tells her, "We're addicts because we are a toxic combination of low self esteem and grandiosity". Through role play, the terrible stories start to emerge behind each patient's history of addiction and they rehearse making amends. The damage to friends and family is itemized.

Duncan Macmillan's script is very well written. Trauma is illustrated with urgent choreography in multiple persons, cacophony and lighting. The description of the sunken life of addiction is enriched with wit. They discuss the themes around the concept of the higher power in the context of the Steps.
Bunny Christie's set is white but desks and a bed quietly rise and fall to change the physical setting. During breakdowns, psychedelic stripes are projected on the white walls.

Artistic director of Headlong, Jeremy Herrin directs. When I look at the list of recent Headlong productions, the plays are memorable, outstandingly good dramas, well directed with stellar performances.

The central performance from Denise Gough is one which is surely on its way to nominations for Best Actress when the spate of awards begins in a couple of months. Gough is amazing in the central role, conflicted, self deluding and confident only in her own intelligence but self destructive.

After seeing Emma's rehearsal for talking about making amends to her parents, we can compare with her in the real situation with all the hurt and pain she put them through. We see how hard it is for her to leave her past behind and how little understanding there is outside the unit. Barbara Marten plays the doctor and the therapist, both of whom remind Emma of her own mother.

An optimistic after survey shows just one in four succeeding in remaining abstinent after residential rehab treatment.

People, Places and Things
Written by Duncan Macmillan
Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Starring : Denise Gough, Barbara Marten, Nathaniel Martello-White
With: Kevin McMonagle, Alistair Cope, Sally George, Jacob James Beswick, Jacqui Dubois, Nari Blair-Mangat
Set Designer: Bunny Christie
Lighting: James Farncombe
Movement: Polly Bennett
Sound: Tom Gibbons
Video: Andrzej Goulding
Music: Matthew Herbert
Costume Designer: Christina Cunningham
A co-production between Headlong and the National Theatre
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes including an interval
Box Office 020 7452 3000
Booking to 4th November 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 2nd September 2015 performance at the Dorfman, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX(Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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