Review: People, Places & Things at Liverpool Playhouse ****
“It’s not a problem my using,” claims cocksure Emma (or is it Nina or Sarah?) as she checks in unwillingly to rehab at the start of Duncan Macmillan’s excoriating addiction drama. “I just want a tune up.”
Of course, it’s soon evident what the frenetically unravelling actress needs is less a physical and psychological tinker under the bonnet and more a complete re-build.
Macmillan’s nightmarish tale, the disquieting atmosphere intensified by designer Bunny Christie’s clinical cube set, was an award-winning hit for the National Theatre in the West End and catapulted its star Denise Gough (who started her career here at the Everyman in The Kindness of Strangers) in to the theatrical stratosphere.
This inaugural UK tour boasts a fresh cast, with fellow Irishwoman Lisa Dwyer Hogg taking on the leading role and moulding it into something of her own.
We first meet her, wired and nervy and torridly abusive, after a meltdown during a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. The torrid abuse is accompanied by gloriously reasonable denial – who wouldn’t want to self-medicate in a world of Brexit, Trump and the rest – and an eloquent defence of the addiction that “loves you back.”
This is all together too disruptive for the rest of the damaged souls trying to piece ruined lives back together – and there are some engaging supporting performances, including Andrew Sheridan as Emma’s no-nonsense conscience Mark and Trevor Fox as the unpredictable fellow patient Paul.
But how far will Emma fall before she allows herself to be picked up and put back together?
Dwyer Hogg delivers some entertaining grandstanding speeches, but is at her most impressive – and truly affecting – in the emotionally raw second half. Her Emma may be a pain in the proverbial, but you really just want someone to give her a hug.
Despite the confines of Christie’s set (the concept of which will be familiar to fans of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), under Jeremy Herrin’s direction the production generates plenty of movement and energy, not least in a visually effective cold turkey sequence where multiple Emmas emerge from some ingenious places, and in a role play scene which builds layer by suffocating layer.
In fact there’s a fair slug of uncomfortable viewing, punctuated by occasional moments of (gallows) humour, in a show that delivers some uneasy truths about what it is to be human.