Writer: Duncan McMillan
Director: Jeremy Herrin with Holly Race Roughan
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
“People who aren’t addicted to anything are really missing out”. It may sound trite but it is a line in Duncan McMillan’s superbly crafted play that echoes long after the play ends. For anyone addicted to theatre this is one play you really don’t want to miss.
After spending two years in London, graduating from The National Theatre (in collaboration withHeadlong Theatre) to a West End home, continuing a growing tradition over the past decade, McMillan’s People Places and Things won a collection of high-profile awards in 2016 including Best New Play at The Olivier Awards as well as several accolades for lead actor Denise Gough. With a fresh cast the play is about to embark on a national autumn tour, opening at HOME in Manchester.
Emma is an actress and an addict and is in rehab. She is addicted to life and all the substances she can put into her blood stream to make it bearable. The good news is that she has reached out for help. The bad news is that she is the only person in the right the rest of the world is in the wrong. A bleak subject matter, of course, but never bleak in its presentation the play literally crackles and fizzes at an enormous speed, as we follow Emma’s journey towards her ‘graduation’ back into the world as a functioning human being. Emotionally wringing herself out and onstage for the whole play, this is an enormous task for Lisa Dwyer Hogg – especially after the praise heaped upon the previous actress to have played Emma. But she is superb and faultless in her ability to portray a creature raging against the machine. In a scene towards the end of the play in which, back in her childhood bedroom, she begs her mother to tell her she is proud of her is utterly heart-breaking.
With an ensemble cast playing fellow addicts, nurses, doctors, therapists and family there is fluidity to the production that creates an almost dreamlike/nightmare quality. Several identical ‘Emmas’ slither and slide around the stage, appearing through walls and emerging from beds as she begins to detox. The show is technically immense. Bunny Christie’s medical, white tiled box may be reminiscent of her design for A Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time but becomes a perfect, harshly lit environment and metaphor for coming clean. The decision by McMillan and director Jeremy Herrin to seat a small audience onstage, almost in traverse, is more of a peculiar one. McMillan occasionally toys with the concept of the fourth wall and the lies and constructs we may hide ourselves behind, a shield from the onlookers and spectators of life. This is especially true the more we think we get to know the character of Emma and, in fact, the less we trust her.
What is so special about Duncan McMillan’s writing is not only the beauty of the storytelling (the roleplay in the support sessions whereby a fantastical future scene is played out as if in the present) but his ability to stop time for a few seconds and speak directly to us and affect us in the most profound way. At first the idea of a writer writing the story of an actress in rehab played, of course, by an actress sounds a little clichéd but all is forgiven during a speech about the beauty of acting and the escapism of being anyone other than yourself. And the nub of the piece seems to be a hymn to the ephemeral nature of life itself, as is the nature of theatre itself and your witness to the play. This is a play that asks what is normal in life and what a ‘new normal’ has to be for anyone struggling with an addiction. With black, almost gallows humour and an audience chastising themselves for laughing inappropriately it asks enormous questions of what each individual considers to be normal.
On first seeing McMillan’s Lungs a few years ago I was the only person in the theatre not to raise to their feet for its well-deserved standing ovation, simply because I wasn’t sure my legs would let me it had affected me to such an extent. Whilst I can’t say this play had the same effect it is one that will live long in the memory. Heart-wrenching, brave, bold, and beautiful.
Reviewed on 28th September | Image: Johan Persson