by Duncan MacMillan
An Actor's Life For Me?
Watching Duncan MacMillan's graphic novel of a play, People, Places & Things, a poem read long ago rose up from the deeper recesses of TLT's mind. Where the poet performed a feat of naming a long list of poets with perfect rhyme and scansion, ending with something to the effect: "One thing I know, we are too many..."
A hit of last year directed by Headlong's Jeremy Herrin, now transferred to the West End from the National Theatre, People, Places & Things ostensibly follows one of the too many - via the world view of a young drink and drug-fuelled actress - while riffing on art, literature, education, religion, acting, competition and substance abuse in the age of mass production.
After an on-stage debacle in an Anton Chekhov play, our actress enters rehab expediently to gain a prized certificate, presumably for insurance purposes, showing she is clean and allowing her to work again.
The evangelical twelve steps towards sobriety, which we see through her eyes, reflects her own life trajectory in the cracked mirrors of her mind. Even to the point of starting out as the reluctant new girl in reception, group therapy doubling as rehearsal room and culminating in a rehab graduation ceremony paralleling a world where acting is now a university degree.
On stage for the full two hours and 20 minutes, the lead role is an undoubted despair-to-euphoria tour-de-force for Denise Gough in designer Bunny Christie's white-tiled set. Additionally Andrezej Goulding's melting projections, sound by Tom Gibbons and Polly Bennett's choreography take us inside a drug-addled soul.
There's plenty to mull over, some pithy humour, polished performances from the rest of the cast including Barbara Marten in triple role as doctor/therapist/Mum and, although somewhat mitigated by repetition, many visceral effects.
Such repetition gave TLT the feeling the play could have been shorter, giving her time to wonder during its course why money never seemed to be a problem. Maybe it all might have worked better for her in another medium, on film or even as a TV boxed set with the actress falling into aggressive reverie and progressing in the midst of a recognisable outside world.
A plethora of literary references scatter the piece, ranging from Mary McCarthy's The Group to Zamyatin's We (a known source for 1984 which writer MacMillan has successfully co-adapted for the stage) with the work of sculptor and painter Jim Dine and his exhibition called People, Places, Things seemingly another influence.
Once you catch on to the concept, it strikes us that the story peters out and the play becomes the victim of the very ideas it examines dramatically, emotionally and intellectually. Again a section with police officers and blood stained outcome becomes rather lost and might have had more impact, giving more of a narrative thread, on film. As would the studied monologues of the parents (played by Kevin McMonagle and Barbara Marten) in a home with literally strings attached.
The opening, complete with playwright's typewriter, has our troubled thespian playing Nina in Chekhov's The Seagull (she later adopts the name of Emma - had the play's writer read the post script to our review of the same play?!).
But it only underlined for us how Chekhov wrote the role of beleaguered actress as someone who lives in the real world. As well as serving as writer's creation, symbol, riff on theatre, victim and avenging angel for the audience.
As we approach the final lines of this little riff of a critique, yours truly and her fully insured sidekick have been racking their own collective brains, desperately googling to find the title and poet of the work mentioned in the first paragraph. But we've run out of time, so if you know the poem I mean, you know where to find the comments' column below ... :) Meanwhile, for People Places Things an amber light for a thought-provoking if overlong theatrical experience.