People Places & Things has been the undoubted thing to see for the theatre geeks this term and, as a proud theatre nerd myself, I was elated to take my seat at Exeter Northcott Theatre on Tuesday 31 October. After a whirlwind success at the National Theatre, the production is now on tour and it’s easy to see why the hype is still high. The show is already standing on hallowed theatre ground by combining the excellent and probing writing of Duncan Macmillan (who recently adapted 1984 for the stage) alongside directors Jeremy Herrin and Holly Race Roughan for (the increasingly legendary) Headlong Theatre Company.
The play bursts into life on the clinically white-tiled traverse stage and audiences are exposed to an eruption of disturbed sounds and bright lights as we are plunged into the world of protagonist Sarah and follow her admittance to a rehab centre. This opening is indicative of the elements of sound and light that seem to represent Sarah’s emotional and physical reaction to drugs and withdrawal throughout the piece. These sensory delights are extremely impactful and at times audience members clutched their ears in unison with Sarah as she felt the drugs affecting her, making for an exciting sensory experience that audiences share with the actors on stage.
In spite of the strong opening, my heart sunk at Bunny Christie’s all-too-familiar set design. It’s no shock to discover that Christie designed this clinical, multi-functional sugar-cube set. For me, it was more oppressively boring and cliché of a medical play circa 2015 than overwhelmingly inventive. Yet if you haven’t seen (what I coin as) a sugar-cube set before, then prepare to be impressed; if you have seen one before, nothing has changed.
wit is a key ingredient to the success of the performance
For all of its serious subject matter (shout out to Brexit, Trump and alcohol abuse), wit is a key ingredient to the success of the performance. Noticeably, the chalk and cheese balance of the stern doctor, (Matilda Ziegler) with the energized protagonist Sarah (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) create some fascinating mother-daughter banter and the two actors naturally bounce off each other in an often very amusing way.
Further applause is owed to the heartwarming character of Nurse Foster, portrayed by Ekow Quartey. Foster’s adoration of his new dog introduces love into the cold world of drug addiction without the playwright having to cram in some cheap love-plot as part of an overworked formula; simply a man’s love for his dog can be enough to pull the heartstrings. Unfortunately, the ensemble characters (that feature mainly to take part in the therapy circle sessions) are left mostly undeveloped, which is a real shame as Macmillan offers us a slice of their enticing lives and whips it away before we can sink our teeth into them.
Praise must go to the brilliantly exuberant Lisa Dwyer Hogg, who never ceases to ignite the stage with an unquenchable energy – delivering monologues and long texts that (to Macmillan’s credit) are completely engaging. The show is full of moments of intriguing physicality (for example, to demonstrate time passing in rehab, many clone-Sarahs emerge from hidden spots on the set and engage in arresting movement sequences), however, in my opinion, the strength of this show lay in Macmillan’s script.
Lisa Dwyer Hogg never ceases to ignite the stage with an unquenchable energy
Headlong Theatre Company aims to “interrogate the contemporary world through […] fearless new writing”, and Macmillan succeeds in fulfilling this challenging mission statement. Macmillan is too clever to simply present the doom and gloom world of addiction; instead his script speaks with true resonance about human relationships, about the lies we tell ourselves and about how easy and human Sarah’s experience of addiction is. Addiction is presented in a way we all can understand; it’s not ‘cool’ but it’s not remotely taboo or seedy, it’s just incredibly real. Sarah ‘self-medicates’ because of the horror she sees in the world, and her struggles as an uninspired and unemployed actress. These struggles seemed raw and relevant to students in particular, as we question the current world political climate and question how we ourselves would function in Sarah’s shoes.
After an enthusiastic curtain call, a baffled young audience member made the comment, “was that a performance, or was that real?”. This innocent comment typified the subtle genius of the production. Like all pieces of brilliant theatre, its aim is not to provide answers – this isn’t the story of “addicted girl goes through journey and is ‘cured’”. What People Places & Things does is something far more powerful: it achieves what so many see as the aim of theatre; it holds a mirror up to reality. The structure of the plot entirely shatters conventional patterns altogether and provides no forced happy ending. I would urge every person at every place to go and see the amazing People, Places & Things.