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Blistering and powerful portrayal of addiction stars an electrifying Denise Gough

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But it turns out it’s a welcome chance to see a revelatory, powerful piece of theatre – and Denise Gough’s electrifying career-making performance as a woman so messy she makes Fleabag look like a wet lettuce.

It starts with actress Emma woozily tanking a performance of Nina in The Seagull and unravels from there – a final night of frantic clubbing before reluctantly checking herself into rehab, high as a kite, and snorting a last minute line off the reception desk.

Ham & High: Denise Gough as Emma in People Places and ThingsDenise Gough as Emma in People Places and Things (Image: Marc Brenner)

Multiple Emmas writhe across Bunny Christie’s clinical white-tiled set as she undergoes body-wracking withdrawal. Once sober, she resists the cult-like ‘programme’ of acknowledging her responsibility, while giving herself up to a higher power with all her intellect and wit.

Emma’s verbal sparring with Sinead Cusack’s wry therapist is belly-laugh funny: “I really need you to be cleverer than this”, and there’s a neat running gag about her looking like her mother.

While playwright Duncan Macmillan is brutally clear about the appalling hurt and damage wreaked by addiction (the blackouts, sexual hook-ups, deceit) he lets Emma express how the drugs make her feel incredible, and are the only sane response to a toxic world. (Trump, Ukraine and Covid get hastily name checked).

Ham & High: Danny Kirrane as Foster and Denise Gough as EmmaDanny Kirrane as Foster and Denise Gough as Emma (Image: Marc Brenner)

Although Emma’s fellow 12-steppers are too lightly sketched, they show how vital mutual support in a ‘safe space’ is to the recovery process. 

It turns out being an actress is helpful for the role-play in group therapy as addicts practice apologising to those they hurt.

Acting is also a metaphor for the masks we wear. Emma is a pathological liar,  happier playing other people than being herself, and as multiple fibs about her name are unpeeled, Gough sheds the protective layers to reveal a raw, vulnerable human being.

Macmillan doesn’t serve up a Hollywood-style ending either. The devastating final scene with Emma’s parents doesn’t go the ‘I’m proud of you’ route of the practice run.

Between mundane discussions over take-aways, mum (Cusack again) unleashes a volley of hurt and home truths that betray the yawning gulf between people who have mutually damaged and abused each other.

If the only way to recover is to avoid the people, places and things that drove your addiction, what if one of those places is home?

You can see why Gough wanted another crack at this Olivier-award winning role – even though the journey of this courageous flawed human being will leave her and the audience wrung out nightly.

People, Places and Things runs at Trafalgar Theatre until August 10.

 

 

 

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