People Places and Things: A profound and unsettling exploration of addiction.

London – Duncan Macmillan’s 2015 play, a profound and unsettling exploration of addiction, returns to the stage in a powerful revival at the Trafalgar Theatre. This production reunites key members of the original team, including director Jeremy Herrin and the acclaimed Denise Gough, whose portrayal of the troubled protagonist, Emma, earned her an Olivier Award.

The narrative follows Emma, an actor ensnared in the throes of alcohol and drug addiction. Unlike many addiction stories, Emma’s journey begins without a detailed backstory, thrusting the audience directly into her present struggles. We join her in a rehabilitation center, witnessing her participation in a therapy circle where addicts share their stories. Initially, the play might seem reminiscent of Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect,” with its protracted group scenes. These scenes, while lengthy, skim the surface of deeper philosophical questions, and often rehash familiar themes from the world of rehab and therapy, including the fraught relationships between addicts and their therapists, here embodied by Sinéad Cusack. The script also attempts to contextualize Emma’s struggles within contemporary issues, mentioning Trump, Ukraine, and Covid, though these references sometimes feel forced.

Denise Gough’s performance is nuanced and complex. Her portrayal of Emma may initially appear detached, but this apparent lack of investment is intentional, reflecting Emma’s internal conflict and disconnection from herself. Emma is not just an addict; she is also a pathological actor, questioning her very existence without a role to play. “If I am not a character, I’m not even sure I’m there,” she says, a line that resonates more deeply as the play progresses and we see the extent of her psychological turmoil.

The second act of the play introduces a significant shift, although not as dramatic as the one found in Anthony Neilson’s “The Wonderful World of Dissocia.” This act casts a darker, more introspective light on the first, probing the efficacy and ethical implications of the 12-step program Emma is undergoing. The second act’s power lies in its creeping sense of unease, delivering a shock that feels less like a narrative twist and more like an inevitable revelation.

Bunny Christie’s set design is a striking, pulsating white stage that leaves Emma exposed, akin to a specimen under examination. This design choice not only underscores Emma’s vulnerability but also immerses the audience in her skewed perceptions. The auditorium’s configuration plays a crucial role in this, creating a mirrored effect that makes the audience feel as though they are simultaneously observing and participating in Emma’s harrowing journey.

The supporting cast adds depth to Emma’s story. Sinéad Cusack’s dual role as Emma’s therapist and mother brings an additional layer of complexity, highlighting the cyclical nature of Emma’s struggles. Kevin McMonagle’s portrayal of Emma’s father reveals a love that is both enduring and devoid of hope. These interactions are vital, providing a stark portrayal of the blurred lines between abuser and abused, a dynamic familiar to anyone who has dealt with addiction personally or within their family.

The outcome of Emma’s journey is deliberately ambiguous, making the play a dramatic Rorschach test for the audience. Macmillan seems to suggest that escape from addiction is not just about overcoming substances but also about confronting the people, places, and memories that trigger the addiction. In a poignant, albeit bleak, conclusion, the play implies that addicts often find refuge only in the familiar pain that initiated their downward spiral. This narrative choice challenges the audience to reflect on the true nature of addiction and recovery.

Emma’s story, as portrayed by Denise Gough, is a compelling blend of fragility and resilience. Her journey through addiction and identity crisis is a heart-wrenching portrayal that resonates long after the final curtain. The play, under Jeremy Herrin’s astute direction, coupled with the evocative set design and powerful performances, offers a profound commentary on the complexities of addiction, the flawed nature of therapeutic systems, and the indomitable human spirit.

In conclusion, Duncan Macmillan’s play, revived with meticulous care and featuring outstanding performances, is a must-see. It not only sheds light on the harrowing realities of addiction but also challenges audiences to confront their own perceptions and biases. The play’s bleak yet brilliant execution ensures it remains a significant piece of contemporary theatre, provoking thought and discussion long after the audience has left the theatre.

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Francesca Lombardo is a freelance journalist. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the LCC of London and her articles has been published by the Financial Times, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, The Herald, Sunday Express, Daily Express, Irish Independent, The Sunday Business Post, A Place in the Sun, Ryanair Magazine, Easyjet Magazine, CNBC magazine, Voyager magazine, Portugal Magazine, Travel Trade Gazette, House Hunter in the sun, Homes Worldwide and to Italian outlets, Repubblica, D Repubblica, L'Espresso, Il Venerdì, Vogue, Vogue Uomo, Vogue Casa, GQ, Il Sole 24 Ore, F Magazine, TU Style, La Stampa, "A", Gioia. Francesca Lombardo has trained at the business desks of the Sunday Times, Daily Mail and Daily Express. She has authored a children's book series titled Beatrice and the London Bus. website:

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