People, Places & Things tells a compelling and often darkly funny story about an addict’s journey through rehab. But it’s strength lies in the fact that it does so much more than that. Writer Duncan Macmillan burrows down into the nature of addiction itself – both as a rational response to the bleakness of contemporary life and as a corruptor of identity and truth.
In the first half of the play, we meet ‘Emma’ – an actor, addicted to pretty much any substance that it’s possible to be addicted to – and we watch her resistance to rehab. She’s prepared to go through the physical trauma of detox (brilliantly conveyed through the device of multiple ‘Emmas’) but launches a number of blistering intellectual attacks on both the assumptions and methods of the therapeutic process that follows. Crucially, she cannot accept the premise that ‘reality’ has anything to offer her by way of meaning or purpose. Of course, the ‘addiction-as-an-escape’ thesis is not especially new or original, but Macmillan takes this beyond the personal and turns it into a moral/political/social critique. Emma argues that addiction offers a viable alternative to “the moral ambivalence you have to have to have to just be able to carry on with your day.” This brilliant line encapsulates the very distinctive and familiar contemporary feeling of helplessness and alienation which is fuelled daily by reports on Brexit/Trump/ISIS et al.
After the interval, however, we meet Emma in a different frame of mind: following a dramatic and frightening relapse, she is now ready to submit to the demands of personal honesty and revelation in group therapy. She confesses that her name is really ‘Sarah’ and we watch as she embraces the process of emotional exposure and reaches the point where she is able to rehearse a humbling but key exchange with her parents. It is impossible not to sympathise and admire the courage that it has taken to get to the point where she has finally stripped away all of her defences in preparation for a clean start.
SPOILER ALERT: the remainder of this review contains HUGE spoilers!
The actual exchange with her parents was never going to go well. Back at home, amongst her primal triggers (her own ‘people, places and things’), her parents have ‘heard it all before’ and barely allow her to finish before they pour scorn over everything she has so carefully and painfully rehearsed. It is brutal. And heartbreaking. And just at the point where my empathy is becoming almost unbearable, her mother casually mentions her name – ‘Lucy’. Not ‘Sarah’, not even ‘Emma’. Lucy. And in that moment the whole edifice that Macmillan has so powerfully erected comes crumbling down. I have spent two hours accompanying this woman on her journey, investing in her eventual honesty, her supposed self-exposure. In a swirl of confused emotion, I feel betrayed, much like her parents must have felt throughout Lucy’s years of deceit. I’m not sure that I can remember much of what follows. On the way home, I re-play the second Act in my mind and everything now has to be re-framed in the light of this one word. And I realise that this is Macmillan’s achievement: not to tell a rehab story (not even a tragic one) but to give us a deep and visceral sense of addiction – the tenacity of its grip and the layer upon layer of defences that it establishes to ensure its survival.
A brilliant, moving and memorable play.
People, Places & Things is a Headlong, National Theatre, HOME & Exeter Northcott production, directed by Jeremy Herrin with Holly Race Roughan and featuring Lisa Dwyer Hogg