People, Places and Things – Oxford Playhouse – Wed 11th to Sat 14th October 2017
People, Places and Things can be hard to avoid. They make up pretty much every tangible aspect of the human experience. So when, on a journey through alcohol and drug rehabilitation, the patient is reminded to be wary of such things, it may seem as arbitrary as asking them to avoid death, taxes or Justin Bieber. We’d all love to circumvent them but their omnipresence means it’s just not possible. More succinctly though the phrase reminds that we have no power over these absolutes – neither can we control or predict them and as a result we must concentrate primarily on our own behaviour and avoid internalising factors beyond our jurisdiction. As we follow Emma, a chewed up and spat out actor with multiple personas, on her journey through rehab and recovery, we learn how difficult it can be to change when the world and its people refuse to do the same.
Emma sees the People, Places and Things in her life to be conspiring against her and we join her on a comedown of epic proportions from her hedonistic abandon, a cheeky line and a smoke in the rehab reception a none too subtle declaration of her jilted state of body and soul. Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s masterly depiction of Emma delicately treads the line between scorn and sympathy as her resentments and preconceptions spew out during an opening half hour where she desperately attempts to shoot holes in her diagnosis as an alcoholic drug addict.
So spectacular is the writing of Duncan MacMillan that the hilarity and desperation of the situation sit together, existing alongside one another without one disrupting the other and we spend the majority of the play examining Emma’s denial, her withdrawal and her failure to associate herself with her addiction. With all manner of technical and narrative devices, MacMillan weaves Emma’s story through group therapy, time in isolation and one on one conversations with her therapist, the result being the realisation that Emma is a tragically sick and wounded individual. Again, the gifted performance of Hogg must be alluded to, its frenetic gallows humour only allowed to prosper due to chinks of intense vulnerability.
At times the group therapy can seem a little overly stage school, each uniquely messed up character taking turns to give a monologue which all too reductively sums up their troubled backstory. Instead of building a fuller view of Emma, our main concern, we find ourselves negotiating a whole host of other patients plights, none given the time to allow their tragic circumstances to truly hit their mark and the play can seem at times dangerously close to veering into a canyon of self pity and indignation. For the majority of this time Emma makes little or no progress and we wonder at MacMillan’s climatic conclusion if she has really made any headway at all. Thankfully Hogg’s performance is enough to keep the audience engaged, her tantalisingly provocative and unabashedly stubborn stance keeps People, Places and Things light and dark in equal measures.
More than just a story of an addict, MacMillan has created a piece of work that asks deep rooted questions about our society and the coping mechanisms we all use to survive in a world which often seems confusing and unsettling. Emma’s story seems less a story of how we recover but rather how issues such as perceived societal scrutiny, our desire to be “a success” and dealing with grief can tear us apart from the inside out. People, Places and Things suggests that none of us are honest enough with ourselves or the people around us. The brilliance of MacMillan’s writing is that he always asks us to examine our own worlds and so often finds us all to be wanting.
4 / 5