Getting to the heart of addiction

Our review of People Places & Things

Since it hit London’s West End recently, with formerly unknown actress Denise Gough cast in the lead role, People, Places and Things has been the talk of theatre land. (Just as well for Irish-born Denise who was virtually broke and about to quit acting!).

For those not already in the know, it features the story of Emma, a lost, lonely woman in her thirties, who goes to rehab to overcome an addiction to drugs, alcohol and prescriptions pills.

Fundamentally, People, Places & Things is about addiction – and the fact we can become addicted to anything or anyone, (including food) – hence the title.

From the moment the action starts, compelling chaos follows. Rebellious Emma (who deceitfully calls herself a host of alternative names, to camouflage her authenticity) is first seen drunk and high as she checks into treatment.

At this stage, she’s both entertaining and tragic. Like many ‘using’ addicts, she behaves like an angry, unfettered adolescent – self destructive, self obsessed and unable to claw together even a mildly functional persona.

But as the play goes on, it’s impossible not to garner sympathy and even some identification with Emma’s position.

Her withdrawal from booze and drugs seems agonising, with violent hallucinations. These are conveyed in brilliant scenes during which identical-looking actresses swoop across the stage and crawl out of Emma’s bed, representing her tortured mind and fractured sense of being.

This play is crucially about one woman’s recovery – not just from substances – but from denial and self loathing.

She is challenged in group therapy, and it takes some time before Emma’s actually willing to embrace both emotional and physical sobriety.

It’s also apparent, that just as the compulsive overeater consumes for comfort and escape, Emma’s uses drink and drugs to shield herself from reality.

Interestingly enough, it’s not until the final scenes of the play that we get a glimpse of the emotionally-repressive home which may have in part triggered Emma’s need to meet her emotional needs through substance abuse; along with the tortuous impact of her brother’s death.

We cannot be sure what happens after Emma sobers up. The path ahead is bound to have more challenges though the audience can only hope they’re milder.

It’s entirely logical that having put down drink and drugs, Emma might switch her habit to compulsive overeating and in fact much anecdotal evidence suggests many ‘recovering’ female alcoholics and drug addicts also have eating disorders and/ or significant issues around food.

What the play superbly illustrates is that – no matter what the substance – an addicted person will tolerate great pain and discomfort to avoid change. Indeed, Emma fears her life will be impossibly pointless and boring without the drama of addiction. It’s become an integral part of her identity and it’s how she keeps busy.

And just as many obese people – even those who are battling diabetes type 2 and other life threatening conditions – will go to great lengths to deny there’s a problem, when Emma checks into rehab she genuinely disputes the fact she is an addict or alcoholic.

Denial is symptomatic of any addiction because it typically builds a wall to protect the addict from guilt and shame. The good news though, as this play demonstrates, is that for those courageous enough to change their behaviour and ‘trust the process’ a far more promising and fulfilling life is on offer.

Team Broccoli & Brains would like to second that!