EMMA is addicted to drugs and alcohol. She’s also an actress, who makes a living out of pretending to be someone else, or lying, as she puts it.
Thus, when she finds herself in rehab after a particularly sticky episode during a production of The Seagull, she has some issues with honesty in the mandatory group sessions. It’s the nouns that cause the trouble, explains a therapist. The people, places and things that keep pulling you back.
The first thing that strikes you on seeing the stage for this production (which first appeared at The National’s Dorfman in 2015) is that Bunny Christie’s enclosed, geometric set has echoes of her design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The similarity doesn’t end there, though. Constant stage movement propels the narrative forward at a breakneck pace, and some nightmarish scenes have the astonishing ability to put us inside the mind of the lead character.
Played here in this new touring cast, in a towering performance by Lisa Dwyer Hogg, the identity-challenged Emma finds it easier to recount the lives of people she’s learned to be, rather than facing her own reality.
The ensemble work is exceptional and the tension in the long first act builds inexorably. This opening 80 minutes is a tough ride, but it measures itself so carefully under the direction of Jeremy Herrin and Holly Race Roughan that the audience are kept absolutely engaged the whole way to the punchy lead into the interval. There’s big emotional payoff in the much shorter second act, in which there’s both great character development in the writing and compelling material in the narrative.
It’s a big cast, supplemented by supernumeraries who are engaged locally for the regions the play is touring to. The set also includes an onstage audience, creating a sort of compressed traverse stage effect. This offers an opportunity for a limited number of people to enjoy a reduced price but close-up and personal experience with the production.
This is tough, honest and urgent writing, sometimes brutal but not without moments of humour to relieve the tension. And it is an absolute must-see.
People, Places and Things is at Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 18 November