The National Theatre's sell-out production of Duncan Macmillan's brand new play is preparing to transfer to the West End's Wyndham's Theatre, in what will mark the public-funded venue's first commercial transfer under its new Artistic Director Rufus Norris.
Whilst previous transfers have included family-orientated 'spectacle' shows such as War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and One Man, Two Guvnors, with People, Places & Things the venue is bringing a new type of theatre to the commercial West End. “It's about chipping away at that idea of what a 'West End' play is” says Jeremy Herrin, director of the play and Artistic Director of Headlong, who are co-producing the production. “This is deeply satisfying work and our aim is to stimulate in a really pleasing way.”
There's not a puppet animal or dead dog in sight in this powerful and hard-hitting drama about the realities of tackling addiction, seen primarily from the point of view of Emma, an actress who has been checked into rehab in order to turn her life around. Whilst this topic may not necessarily be brand new, the approach to it certainly is, and is something that writer Macmillan cares an awful lot about. “What was so important to me”, he says, “was the way addiction is treated in the media, and it craves a kind of closure. I wanted to try and write something that subjectively dealt with what the character was going through and put the audience inside, rather than look at the character from the outside.” The audience therefore don't sit and judge the character as an external judge, jury and executioner like many dramas on the same subject – instead they see, though the power of theatre, exactly what it's like to suffer with addition. “You feel a huge responsibility” he goes on, “there will be people every night seeing the show for whom these issues are central to their lives.”
Talking about the origins of the play, Macmillan discussed wanting to write a big ensemble piece that had a large central protagonist. He'd seen frustrated actresses in their mid 30s searching for a large challenging role, and in many ways the form initially dictated the content. Emma's mission then became a focal point of the drama and something for the audience to identify with, the fight against insurmountable odds which which we can all relate. What makes the play so powerful and ultimately successful is that it manages to transcend its subject matter and bring out much deeper themes – something that's been possible thanks in part to the strength of Denise Gough in the central role.
Although she may not yet be a household name, Evening Standard Award nominee Denise Gough is certainly set to be one. In what has been described as a “career defining performance” the Irish actress has already enjoyed a healthy stage career and has previously been nominated for the Critics' Circle Most Promising Newcomer award for her role in 'Desire Under the Elms' at the Lyric Hammersmith. “There's been tears from the very beginning” she says, “It was, has been and will continue to be the most phenomenal experience I've ever had. My tribe of people I've been allowed to work with, the content, the writing...I've had the time of my life.”
It's a highly physical and demanding role on every level, and one that isn't without its challenges. As a play it demands hard work from every single department, something that the creative team were aware of from the very beginning. “I remember sending it to Rufus” laughs Jeremy Herrin, “he said it's a really great play but he also said you have to be at the top of your game, rather intimidatingly”. Herrin admits it took a while for the production to settle during preview period. The combination of speeches and quick fire dialogue leading to moving moments and some metaphorical moments make for a wonderful company piece as well being a terrific opportunity for a lead actor.
Speaking on the final day of performances at the National Theatre, the team are understandably looking forward to the West End transfer. Talking about what changes audiences can expect leads Herrin to say he's already working with Macmillan on which parts of the text can be sharpened up and developed. The physical production, which is currently in traverse with the audience on two sides will be extended, with Bunny Christie (the multi-award-winning designer of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' amongst others) recreating the set to include on stage seating in the West End. “We want to take further in the Wyndham's” says Herrin.“We're going to build seating on the stage and make it more theatrical – it's an exciting opportunity.”
The team have all noticed the change in audience demographic at the show, saying that it has really been “owned” by the youth, and are hoping that this continues into its transfer in 2016. With accessible ticket pricing, it provides an important opportunity for people to see live theatre, and a production that really speaks to them. Whilst the topics concerned may seem too gritty and realistic, the play takes the endless period of recovery and makes it theatrical, turning it into a pleasing experience that gives audiences a lot to think about. The true mark of theatre at its finest.
People, Places and Things begins performances at the Wyndham's Theatre on 15 March 2016, with an official opening on 23 March 2016.