My People, My Places and My Things

I’m slightly touchy when it comes to theatre and mental health. Imagine yourself on a tightrope, you focus ahead – don’t you dare look down, your legs tremble even more – and your safety net…well there’s holes, but who cares! During my teen years, I slipped and even injured…myself. Little did I know theatreland was what I was aiming for….all I can say it was a bloody long piece of rope.

Working (and playing) within the industry, theatre has a permanent grip on my life. I once used theatre as escapism, but it has now become a matter of self-discovery. I guess you could say the “mental health” string dangles from the heart and many creatives have attempted to yank or milk it – but fail…miserably! To successfully interpret mental health within a creative form…well that’s what I call talent.

The manic rush to buy a ticket to see Headlong‘s People, Places and Things at the National Theatre was insane. Seats were filling in front of my eyes. Hot ticket guaranteed. I stole a glance at the play’s overview and the character’s name sold my seat.

Emma was having the time of her life. Now she’s in rehab. Her first step is to admit that she has a problem. But the problem isn’t with Emma, it’s with everything else. She needs to tell the truth. But she’s smart enough to know that there’s no such thing. When intoxication feels like the only way to survive the modern world, how can she ever sober up?

 National Theatre, People, Places and Things, 2015

National Theatre. People, Places and Things. Credit: Johan Persson
National Theatre. People, Places and Things. Credit: Johan Persson

I always love a good set design. Similar to ITV’s The Cube or Theme Hospital (remember that Playstation game), Bunny Christie provided a slickly sterile styled, white washed space with four slamming doors. With various rooms for her rehab residence, the poignant green exit sign illuminates with pointing arrows, giving “Emma” the perfect escape clause.

Denise Gough’s “Emma” was the girl I wish I was – an intelligent, feisty, young woman, unafraid to disagree with medical professionals and challenge others during “happy clappy” group therapy sessions. To quote Alicia Keys, “This girl is on fire“. Her character moshed the textbook version of recovery. Lying about her real name several times, we identify “Emma” as a rebel child  and survives through life thanks to her job – as an actor. Struggling to admit addiction and refusing help, her life spirals out of control and yearns for that doctor’s fit note.

Excavating the memory of her dead brother was the “Aaaaah, we’re getting somewhere moment“, she develops her coping mechanism – drugs – to vent the grief and guilt. Her career took priority over her brother’s death. I waited for the cue of a blubbering wreck heroine, but it did not come. I waited for the rehab fling between recovering addicts Emma and Nathaniel Martello-White’s Mark, but it did not come. Instead this girl had perfect ammunition – she fired just sarcasm and humour.

People, Places and Things. Credit to Johan Persson
People, Places and Things. Credit to Johan Persson

Like mini Sias running around the stage (the interval’s stage cleaners were even doubles), I thought it was the work of a creative genius. The silent body doubles expressed the side effects and recovery process: hallucinations, blackouts, daily routines and sickness. Betraying the brain of focus, it was a sick overdose of stunning movement and distorting music.

The most painful watch was when Emma tried to apologise to her parents. Rehearsing the speech within rehab, her parents bulldozed her words. Their lack of emotion was heart-breaking and totally true to authentic form. It ruined the fairy tale ending and they all lived happily ever after. When it comes to loved ones, there is no quick fix – the repeated sorry doesn’t quite cut it sweetheart. Words are just words with no action. Sometimes you really do need that reality kick up the backside to prove them wrong – but after a hug and good cry surely? Staring at her treasure box of drugs, Emma was left with ultimatum – take the next fix? She decided on the desperate phone scramble to attend a recovery support meeting. You go girl!

Admiring the video with the cast at the top, I believe People, Places and Things has provided a great service to voice those who’ve suffered from addiction, received therapy and “recovery”. The cast and crew are pretty serious about the making of this production and it certainly shows on the Dorfman’s stage. By making the characters “human”, the play is totally believable and, dare I say it, “entertaining”. People, Places and Things had the right people, was performed at the right place and the script said the right things.

Ends 4 November. Good luck trying to buy tickets to this one…it’s sold out, but there is the chance of returns here.

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