Review: People, Places and Things, National Theatre

“You can’t do karaoke unless you’re part of the group”

Oh expectation, you fickle thing – so easily built up and yet so easily dashed. Headlong’s last visit to the National Theatre saw Lucy Prebble’s The Effect brought to powerfully moving life and recently revived so devastatingly effectively in Sheffield, it was still fresh in my mind. So perhaps foolishly, Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things had a lot to live up in my mind but sometimes that’s what happens when you’re a theatre addict – you just have admit that you’re powerless over theatre and that your life has become unmanageable.

Entering a 12-step program is all well and good but how to identify the exact nature of the wrongs, defects of character and shortcomings that help on the way to recovery? How to make amends to the people who have been harmed? Here’s where this tortured analogy will die a death as I can’t make it work, and it is turning out a little harsh against this production. That said, I really wasn’t a fan despite some sterling work from Denise Gough and spotted at least three people making a run for it before we broke for the interval. 

Gough plays Emma, an actress toiling out on the fringe who has been self-medicating in a big way and has ended up at rehab. Willingly she says, but it soon becomes apparent that she’s less than willing to really engage with the process, believing herself to be largely fine and that it is everyone and everything else that has the problem. Thus plays out a lengthy first act that feels way too self-indulgent. MacMillan’s writing hammers home his protagonist’s state of mind but doesn’t do anywhere near enough to connect us to her fate, even when – especially when – things change post-interval.

And Jeremy Herrin’s direction doesn’t help much. Resorting to awkwardly staged club sequences in scene changes feels tired, and pretty much every scene seems to go on for twice as long as necessary – have Emma imagine a few doppelgangers climbing out of her bed? Why not make it 7?. etc Bunny Christie’s eye-catching but unnecessarily tricksy design that adds little aside from the potential for delays – the cumulative effect is just rather wearisome (aside from Andrzej Goulding’s arresting video work) and amounts to what feels like nothing much in the end. 

Gough is strong in what proves to be a gargantuan role but never caring about the character means it’s wasted on me. I always enjoy watching Barbara Marten and there’s a lot of her as a series of female authority figures and Nathaniel Martello-White provides a little plain-speaking respite but as terrible a blight as addiction is in our modern age, there’s nothing so dull as people going on about their problems.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 4th November then touring 

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