What the hell is the point of this one?
People, Places and Things is, I think fairly objectively, a not very good play.
Now: if you feel like this is going to wreck something you love, stop reading. If you feel like you just don’t want to get angry at an averring opinion, stop reading. Honestly, for the love of God, I do not want to hear about people saying how wrong I am – there are literally awards ceremonies on Youtube dedicated to telling me this opinion isn’t right – but I’m going to explain myself because everyone’s got an albatross, or something and Haydon said he was interested and if Haydon tells you he’s interested then you sure as hell don’t disappoint him.
That play is not about addiction. It isn’t. They can tell me till the cows come home about how people in recovery came to see the show and felt it told their story, my main revelation coming out of that show was literally zero about addiction but a lot about how interesting actors are and how interesting acting is and how theatre is just really bloody interesting.
It is. But that’s also not a difficult thing to explore when you are literally sat in a theatre making a bit of theatre.
The writing of this production finds the least difficult routes from A to B. Think about the process. The play starts and ends metatheatrically. The play’s central character is an actor struggling with being an actor who keeps acting. These are choices the play makes. There are so few representations of addiction in theatre and so few that are in any way sensitive and so few that are about women, that to choose this story is an act of having cake + eating. It says it is about one issue – an important one deserving scrutiny – but its actual concerns are about as close to home as possible. And any problems can always be explained away by the constructedness of it all, so anything goes.
The middle of the play is the most obvious, staid solution to a big problem. She goes into recovery and then what do they do? They wheel out a bunch of people and have a bunch of sodding group sessions. Group therapy? Onstage? I reckon that if you gave a bunch of GCSE students the opportunity to find a form to write about addiction that is exactly what they would have come up with. You get the corporate drug guy, then you get a bunch of people and you get to see the exact motivations for why they are there, but with some really good jokes, obviously.
You see them one by one, in a little line through the middle of the play and they mark time until we can get back to the really interesting character and how good she is at acting and how that says really interesting things about her personality and addiction (but addiction-lite shown to us mainly through a bunch of other actresses with wigs on popping out of every nook and cranny and then leaving in the least psychologically coherent image of what a mind in recovery might look like – on a side-note, the metatheatricality of this show really just makes you think in this moment that fucking hell there are a lot of actresses being given very very little to do and being employed by this production).
Getting specific about the text that everyone seems to find no fault with, there’s a trick contemporary playwrights use – and I think most people who write know this and conceive of it as pretty crap writing – where someone says “I heard someone say... “ or “I read once that…” and then the writer uses that to give themselves licence to write pretty clever esprit d’escalier lines, without having to explain why this character is talking like that.
Oh, here’s an example taken at random:
I heard this expression in a meeting. I was a scream in search of a mouth. I don’t know what it means exactly but that’s me, before. A scream in search of a mouth. In prison they get you to make your bed every day. Like here. Anyway. I made my bed this morning. Without having to remember to do it. I just got up and did it. I never used to do that.
This is paint-by-numbers addiction written by someone very well-read finding it hard to write less clever people. The play actually includes the line – admittedly later undercut but still – “Have you read Foucault?”
Look out. Niles Crane’s just popped by for a cameo appearance.
A personal hatred of mine, expressed so clearly by this show, is easy targets. This play has them in buckets but a particular one that stuck with me was Christianity. I’m not a Christian. I am an avowed atheist. But there is a moment just after the interval where you could practically hear the plinky plonky piano music as a silly Christian being silly with their silly faith that they’ve found as a comfort but that isn’t real gets walked out for some light relief. It really pissed me off. For weeks I thought how uncomfortable I felt sitting amongst a roomful of liberal theatre-goers laughing at someone finding solace in their religion. It was properly nasty theatremaking. Because whatever you think of how weird organised religion is, loads of vulnerable people find it really comforting and that’s really not a joke.
So, there’s a list of reasons – those are, I promise – just the main ones.
On positives and the reason it won all those plaudits and made everyone involved very happy and rich: Denise Gough is a really good performer so she fixed a lot of the play and Bunny Christie is a really good designer so she fixed the rest of it, I’m sure Jeremy had some part in that but I don’t know where and Duncan gets the jokes and I’m sure a nice house, which is nice, because Duncan is nice and Every Brilliant Thing and Lungs and even bits of 2071 are gamechangingly good. But PPP? Nope.