Melissa Blease reviews People, Places & Things, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 21 October

‘People, places and things.’ Although that exact phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in Alcoholics Anonymous’ multi-million selling Big Book, it’s a slogan that millions of people across the globe who are familiar with the 12-step road to recovery from addiction will know.

Basically, the phrase is shorthand for reminding recovering addicts to avoid the characters, situations and associations that might trigger a desire to drink or use drugs again. If you want a vivid, humane, thoroughly honest analysis of how that diktat can be as powerful as it appears – if you read it quickly – futile, award-winning playwright Duncan Macmillan’s up-close-and-personal modern drama focusing on the long, hard escape from the grip of addiction is about as authentic as you’ll get without attending an AA meeting yourself.

Emma is an actress, in both her actual, real life career and her actual, unreal life. Articulate, expressive, perceptive, intelligent and funny she may be – but lordy, she couldn’t be described as easy to like. She tells lies as easily as most of us tell somebody the time, spins yarns whenever the opportunity arises (the most audacious one, for me, being when she hijacks the plot of Hedda Gabler to use as her own life story; the saddest are the moments when we’re left unclear about whether or not she actually had a brother who died) and thinks nothing of telling the people who enter her orbit what absolute morons she thinks they are on a whim.

Now I’m not attempting to make excuses for her bad behaviour, but it has to be pointed out here that Emma (or Sarah, or Nina… as we’ve established, the lines between our leading character’s real and fake lives are blurred, to say the least) is also an addict, cranked up and smoothed out by gin, wine, painkillers, speed, cocaine… and the odd multivitamin when the going gets tough.

When she finally checks into a 12-step rehab programme – which she chooses to do only so she can get a letter declaring her fit to work again without ‘being disruptive’ – she is… well, disruptive to the max, ranting and raving and generally railing against the help on hand, whether it’s from doctors and therapists or fellow patients. As for the notion of becoming submissive to a nebulous ‘higher power’ – you can imagine Emma’s opinion on that.

Lisa Dwyer Hogg is exhilarating, exhausting and extraordinary in her portrayal of Emma, taking command of all scenes, at all times, and largely maintaining a frighteningly energetic, frenzied pace, whether she’s up, down, bored, terrified or deranged. It’s difficult, therefore, not to describe the cast around her as ensemble, even though key characters (most notably Matilda Ziegler as Emma’s doctor/therapist/mum – of course this triple-role is a clever pun around projection – and Andrew Sheridan as Mark, the fellow addict who sees through Emma’s multiple pains) are indeed key to Emma’s journey and subtly dynamic in their own right.

But when Emma isn’t dominating a scene (which isn’t that often), it’s largely Bunny Christie’s clinical, multi-tasking set, Tom Gibbons’ nerve-jangling sound design and Jeremy Herrin’s imaginative directorial flourishes (the multiple ‘Emmas’ who erupt out of the bed, the walls and the facility’s functional furniture when the horrors of cold turkey set in, for example, are startlingly, harrowingly effective) depict the terror and confusion that Emma’s experiencing more vividly that the cleverest of scripts could.

So, is this a redemption tale? Ultimately, it’s left to the audience to decide. In a similar fashion to, say, an Irvine Welsh fable or one of many films along the lines of Barfly, Withnail and I or Leaving Las Vegas, People, Places & Things doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the seductive allure of taking ‘that next drink/snort/gulp’ – but it doesn’t add any glamour to the notion of overdoing it, either.

We’re not expected to dispute the notion that real life can be painful, dull or downright terrifying to deal with – but we’re not expected to be see addiction as any form of easy escape from reality. And realism infuses this production from start to finish: the closing scenes are as brutally honest, confusing and yes, funny (because let’s not forget, real life can be funny too) as the agonising opening exchanges. The moments in between, meanwhile, represent a big, harrowing journey taken in 12 little steps.

I can’t have been the only audience member who, having been alerted to the interval courtesy of a raging, unstable, disorientated Emma standing alone on the stage urging everybody to “go and get a drink” opted for orange juice over a glass of wine.

Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk

Image: Johan Persson