The Headlong Theatre production of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things was just on the cusp of opening for a buzzing, predominately young, audience, when a sudden flurry of latecomers poured in through the theatre doors. The disruption injected a sudden sense of unrest and urgency into the auditorium, which coincidently served as an unplanned precursor of what would be presented on stage over the next few hours.
The story itself explores themes of addiction, rehabilitation, and self-honesty — it had a lot to live up to. Headlong Theatre present a play, of which its previous incarnation enjoyed a critically acclaimed season, with some award-winning individual performances that had garnered rave reviews. Nevertheless, as the lights were shut off with a dramatic thud, the current cast emerged from the shadows of the set as well as the ghosts of their predecessors.
Emma (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) is the troubled protagonist struggling to cope with the harsh realities and mundanities of modern society. She is narcissistic, very intelligent, and smug with it. Her coping mechanism has become a reliance on drugs and alcohol, her only other form of catharsis is achieved through her profession; acting. I found the character hard to swallow initially, but as her pretence is broken down, she becomes much more believable and palatable.
We’re introduced to Emma as she is performing on stage, but this is an occasion when the boundaries of distinction between her character and her reality have become a blur. The lights dim and flicker, and the sound of static rings out from the stage as she flinches and stalls: a manifestation of her increasing discontinuity and confusion. Eventually, she breaks down and we’re thrown into a manic montage of her life and indulgences, which concludes when she eventually, though reluctantly, checks herself into rehab.
The sound and lighting effects used here combine effectively and are, at times, genuinely unsettling; there are scenes where the entire cast bolt back and forth across the stage, inflicting a sort of chaos on the room. The set design is a vacant, white cell, which works well as both a cleverly interchangeable stage and also a handy metaphor for how Emma views the world.
Macmillan’s dialogue is fast-paced and witty, and there are plenty of genuinely big laughs from the offset in amongst some very honest observations. Although the cast is small, and mainly ensemble, the supporting characters here are all well developed and likeable, and they serve their purpose well. I must admit that I found Matilda Ziegler’s portrayal of multiple characters a highlight. She remained funny, believable, and consistent throughout, and brought a real warmth to the stage which I particularly enjoyed.
Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s performance is also to be applauded, as she handles Emma’s transition from manic to fragile in her stride. Her monologues are heartfelt and emanate with confidence and conviction; the performance really does shine and is as chaotic and energetic as it is emotive.
The direction by Headlong Theatre’s Jeremy Herrin, with Holly Race Roughen, deserves its recognition. It is modern and enthralling, and they really help bring the play to life. It really is break-neck speed stuff, and nobody here misses a beat.
Overall, People, Places, and Things is a funny, sad and honest piece of theatre. It had the audience gripped by its tense atmosphere from the first act until the last, and the applause for the cast and crew was rapturous. This Headlong Theatre production is well worthy of an evening spent in the theatre; maybe with a drink or two, ideally.