Touring – reviewed at Bristol Old Vic
If the National Theatre is struggling at the moment to find too many hits for its South Bank base, Bristol is currently demonstrating its five-star best with two hits playing little more than a stone’s throw to each other. While War Horse continues to pack in the crowds at the Hippodrome, People, Places and Things provides a buzz to its audience as strong as any narcotic that actor Emma gobbles down in Duncan Macmillan’s 2015 breakout play.
With the original cast now reprising in New York, it’s left to Lisa Dwyer Hogg to step into the huge shoes that Denise Gough has vacated for the UK tour. If the role of an actress checking into rehab and trying to learn who she is, provided Gough with a role to take her to the level her talent deserves, it should do a similar trick for Hogg, her performance slightly less manic and more restrained than Gough though both pierced the heart long before the end. It’s been a good while since a modern play has given a woman the kind of role that will turn heads and make a career. Emma is a role to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rooster from Jerusalem. It wouldn’t surprise me in years to come if female actors mention the role in conversations about dream roles in the same way their male counterparts do Hamlet. It is, in short, a gift.
Starting off delivering Nina’s famous speech from The Seagull, which soon breaks down owing to a binge fuelled haze Emma is never off the stage, both literally and metaphorically. For this is an actor in all facets of life. If she slips comfortably into a 1,000 roles the only one she hasn’t, the only one she can’t master is herself. Every word that she utters is a deflection, the line between truth and fiction blurred so even she no longer seems sure what is fact and what is a fabrication. Who is the real women at the heart and what if she, as her mother cruelly and bluntly states, is only interesting with the drink and drugs inside her.
Confession, I was living my own theatrical hedonism in London a few years back, pushing everything too hard. The highs were unimaginable, glorious nights where anything seemed possible. The lows- the hangovers, the guilt, the shame- were increasingly painful. So much rings true, only feeling worth something when wrecked, not fully sure who the real person was beneath the dreams and the myths. If you don’t need to have been there to appreciate the insight Macmillan casts, I mention it to highlight just how complete the piece is realised.
It is a bracing night full of characters facing up to their struggles and pushing on. Life is hard, life without comfort blankets almost unimaginable; but these characters come to mean so much to the audience because they finally identify and face their troubles head on. In a play that casts a sympathetic eye and ear over characters you would cross the road on the street to avoid, it also makes heroes out of the carers and psychiatrists who care and aid their recovery. Matilda Ziegler portrays councillor and psychiatrist with a mix of soft spoken firmness and calm understanding. As Emma’s mother this turns to anger and bracing recriminations. All their scenes together are riveting, mirrors of women gradually and subtly calling bullshit on Emma’s lies.
Jeremy Herrin’s production matches the searing nature of the script. It constantly spools forward never gasping for breath as Emma goes from meeting to meeting, gradually chipping away at her wall of protectiveness, as though any gasp for air, any pause in proceedings, will pull the process of recovery back to starters. His staging of heavy nights is particularly effective; pounding music, fragments of memory, a building sense of things getting increasingly out of control. His ultimate coup de theatre sees countless doubles of Emma bursting out of the walls and bed of Bunny Christie’s terrific set, a mass of bodies where the real women can no longer be spotted. It’s a visual representation of a woman lost to herself as well as a pulsing piece of stage business. It’s a neat trick that only an organisation with the resources of the National Theatre can pull off.
It doesn’t need it from me but this is an unqualified hit, one of the great plays of the decade to date. With its mix of forensic writing, brilliant stagecraft and an unforgettable central performance from Hogg it is a night that will burn bright in this mind for a long time to come. Unmissable!
Quick tip: I had a stage seat for this and would thoroughly recommended. It gives the work the intimacy of the Dorfman where the work premiered that is going to be missed by sitting in the auditorium. The acting up close is masterful. And at £13.50 a seat for Saturday matinee it’s a snip.
People Places And Things Plays At Bristol Old Vic until the 28 October and continues to tour to Exeter, Southampton, Liverpool and Cambridge until the 25 November