Much has been written about Denise Gough who stars in the new play, People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan at The Dorfman, all of which has been complimentary. And this is how it should be because she is unbelievably good playing troubled actress Emma, who has alcohol and drug abuse problems.
We first see her in the role of Nina, the ingénue in Chekhov’s play The Seagull and it is soon evident that all is not well. This is confirmed when the scene swiftly changes to what is obviously a reception area in a (not quite so obvious) rehabilitation unit. Our flawed heroine has checked herself in to sort herself out, but if becomes clear that she is no model patient. Wanting, among other things, to rescue her failing career and her sanity, she rails against her rescuers, refusing to give up her propensity for lying, especially when it comes to her actual name. The clinic’s twelve-step recovery programme, where the patients are advised to avoid peoples, places and things that might trigger temptation is not something to which she’s keen to subscribe. After all drugs and alcohol have never let her down and have always loved her! Eventually she does surrender to the detox regime, joining in with a role play session which when played out for real with her parents, varies to such an extent that her decision to beat her addictions is seriously undermined.
In the wrong hands, the portrayal of such an intelligent but damaged soul, veering from one emotional meltdown to the next, could become tiresome. But this splendid, virtually unknown actress, ensures that her journey from the effects of withdrawal, through sullen unresponsiveness to eventual capitulation, is as harrowing as it is utterly believable. She sniffs, squints and squirms, her stance indicating terror and rage in equal measure; every inch the addict. Thanks to Jeremy Herrin’s marvellous direction and Bunny Christie’s minimal but authentic design, we’re privy to the hallucinations Emma feels during her initial detox. Many versions of herself are seen escaping from her bed and ghostly bulges gape through the clnically white walls.
Although Denise Gough is undoubtedly the “star of the show”, there are other fine performances. “You look like my mother”, Emma says to the Doctor. This is unsurprising, because Barbara Marten takes on this role as well as Therapist and Mum and is totally believable in all three. And other group member Nathaniel Martello-White as Mark, the deliverer of superb one-liners is excellent.
People Places and Things far from being depressing is witty and not without hope, whilst the ending hits just the right note. Ambiguous it may be but there is never any certainty that an addict is no longer an addict having gone through rehab. The only certainty is that Denise Gough is no longer a virtual unknown actress.