So speaks Nina or is it Lucy, or Emma? The protagonist (eventually revealed as Emma) in the powerful, harrowing addiction drama People, Places and Things is an actress, who breaks down during her role in Chekhov’s The Seagull. Her thwarted ambition, trauma and family dysfunction numbed by ‘living vividly’ through drink and drugs. This clever turn is played out as we try to decipher what is the truth and what is a lie, when is she real and when is it an act? These are salient issues for those working in the field of substance misuse.
It’s hard to take your eyes off Denise Gough’s lead. She is astonishing and mesmerising, in turns loveable and hateful. Anyone familiar with addiction will recognise the complexities and contradictions involved, the love (requited, according to Emma) and pleasure that drugs offer, the destruction they wreak on themselves and those nearby, and the deep ambivalence of the user. Emma enters rehab drowning in psychical pain, the set neon-aglow in clean and pristine white tiles, with just enough time to snort a line of coke before admission. In turn the staff and fellow patients try hard to find a point of connection as Emma rebels, manipulates and seduces. We feel their pain and frustration. The demise of one (Foster) after the death of his dog and 7 years clean underlines the vulnerability of professional helpers, many of whom have their own demons to manage.
The pleasure-pain paradigm is graphically presented in the earth-shattering clubbing and cold-turkey scenes. It’s hard to tell one scenario from the other as Emma explodes, hallucinating and dissociating, multiple figures of her writhing, pacing, dancing, collapsing, retching over the toilet bowl, and arising from the mattress like a scene from The Exorcist. She utters a primal scream and we all want to join in-what the hell causes her pain and must she reveal it to be free?
The 12-steps loom large, foregrounding the ‘one day at a time’ mindfully, socially and spiritually engaged approach to abstinence. Zealous submission to this higher power isn’t for everyone and Emma initially rages against it. In one scene staff and patients ‘the group’ join hands and recite the ‘Serenity Prayer’, see below. Sometimes the jokes wear as thin as the ‘f****ing boring, orange squash’ culture of rehab that Emma resents as she screams for a ‘real drink’. Emma eventually submits for she has no choice, no other recovery model is presented, nor is family therapy offered. This is a critical omission, as it is routinely part of rehab and is particularly relevant here, given the toxic influence of Emma’s parents.
The family issues are laid bare in the play’s most harrowing scene after Emma’s graduation from rehab, returning to the family home, vulnerable and back in her childhood bedroom. ‘Our family is broken’ states her mother, played by Barbara Marten, cold and victorious. The same actress plays her psychiatrist and her therapist, disorienting us and providing further scope for projection. Her mother, resigned, is her nemesis and her mirror. For Emma, her mother is the greatest risk to relapse, and this is no paranoid delusion as she has stashed drugs and drug paraphernalia under her daughter’s bed, daring her to come clean or to leave, forever. Emma picks up the phone to call her sponsor, checking when the next (12-step) meeting is, praying to be rescued from herself, her family, and the box under the bed. This scene explains better than any words, how abstinence is precarious and relapse is ever-near to people, places and things, especially at times of stress.
–People, Places, and Things is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 18 June 2016.