Addicted to National Theatre
- OnStage United Kingdom Columnist
Recently I have been trying to broaden my theatre horizons. I am a sucker for a good musical, and very regularly venture into the West End to pursue my favourite hobby. This year I have made a conscious effort to go and see more abstract theatre and plays. Last weekend I ventured to the Wyndam’s Theatre in Leicester Square to see the acclaimed National Theatre and Headlong co-production, ‘People, Places and Things.’ Within five minutes of the show starting, it is clear to see why it has made such an impression on the West End. I first discovered a love for the National Theatre when the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time burst onto London’s West End after a smash hit run at the National, so with the fact I’m trying to see many more types of theatre, I thought People, Places and Things would be a great choice. I have to say I was not disappointed.
The play, written by Duncan Macmillan, takes you on an intense roller-coaster of emotions as the story unfolds and you become more enticed in the complicated and fragile lives of the characters. Beautifully directed by the amazing Jeremy Herrin, you can feel yourself being drawn in with each second of watching. I usually heavily research theatre before I watch it as I love to know the story, but I went into this completely blind having no clue what the story line was. As I headed into the theatre I was intrigued by the set design, and also the fact that this theatre has limited on stage seats, which I have always been unsure of, but I think in hindsight, for a show like this I would definitely give those a try as you would be even closer to the thrilling action happening on stage. After just a few moments I was completely hooked.
Bunny Christie designed a magnificent and versatile set- which is something you come to expect with a National piece. She designed the set for Curious Incident and I was pleased to see aspects of this in this set. The walls were white wash and set out in a clinical manner which made for a stark background, which meant the acting had to be stand out, as this type of set could easily alienate an audience. I always love the complex and unique technical aspects of these type of productions, and I have to say I was blown away by these. From the intense lighting changes, to the harrowing sound effects- the tech team did themselves proud on finding just what would work to compliment a piece of writing such as this one. The set combined with technical elements and the intense physical nature of the piece really make for some remarkable viewing which is unlike anything else.
The play is headlined by lead actress Denise Gough, who, despite working in various theatre for years is a relative newcomer to such well known West End fame. She has just this year won the Olivier Award for Best Actress and after seeing her in the role it is true to say how well deserved that award was. The story focuses on Emma, who has several other names throughout, and her battle with drug and alcohol addiction. Gough gives a sublime, if not somewhat understated performance as a character who goes from fragile, to manic, to aggressive and more in the space of a few moments. Some critics are saying she has given the ‘the greatest stage performance since Mark Rylance in Jerusalem as Emma’ (Standard) and I would have to agree with them. She is captivating from the moment you see her, and considering what an intense emotional piece this play is gives her all every second. Gough has impeccable timing and gives such depth to the character, which is why you become so involved with her from the offset. The character is intelligent, funny, and has real wit which adds to her likeability. You can see how emotionally draining a piece like this is for an actor, and considering there is no understudy for her role listed in the programme, you have to take your hat off to her on the performance she gives of such a hard and complex role to portray.
The rest of the characters in the play are somewhat side-line to the momentous performance by Gough, but are still integral to making the performance work as well as it does. The cast is seemingly perfect with several standout performances for me. Barbara Marten, a theatre and television favourite, multi-roles the parts of the clinic doctor, the therapist and Emma’s mum.
There is a running joke throughout about the likeness of the doctor to Emma’s mother, which in a way prepares us for the relationship we see later between Emma and her mother. Marten gives an exceptional performance as all three characters, showing subtle changes in voice and movement to encapsulate the change in character. The one criticism I have is that not all of the characters have as much depth as they could, I think some of the characters in Emma’s therapy group have their stories cut off by her abrasive attitude but I think that because you are so focused on Gough’s acting and the stylized nature of the play, then ultimately this is not a big down point.
There are many abstract moments which strangely, actually add to the realism of the piece, such as when Emma is experiencing a ‘come down’ or becoming exhausted and manic. Members of the ensemble creep out from various places in the set- the walls, the bed, from the stage seats, to such an effect that you feel like you are going through these things with her. I have to say the ensemble in this piece were stunning and really made me and no doubt others in the audience feel true empathy for the characters within.
There is a certain stigma attached to tackling a subject such as addiction, but I think this black comedy achieves it brilliantly in such a way that although addiction is a key part of this storyline, it becomes secondary to other demons that the characters have which have made them who they are. Macmillan writes with perfect empathy and humour, which makes a piece that could easily be very harsh and un-relatable, really easy for the audience to invest in. This play in my opinion presents a gritty story in a powerful and moving way which pushes past prejudices on the subject matter and allows for 2 or so hours of mesmerising acting set within an intriguing storyline with the added brilliance of the set and technical elements.
Actresses like Gough inspire me and remind me why I loved acting so much and why I try to immerse myself in it as much as possible. This play is a must see if you enjoy a more un-conventional theatre experience. It is playing at London’s Wyndam’s Theatre until June 18th. Well worth a watch!