Even the critics were on their feet at the curtain call for People, Places and Things: yes, Denise Gough, playing an actress whose journey towards recovery from alcohol and drug addiction the play charts so remorselessly yet feelingly, is that good. Here's acting so raw, so tangible, so felt, so passionate, so wounded yet alive, so down but never out, that it thrills and astonishes.
She's already won the Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Actress, and though she inexplicably (to many) lost out in the same category at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards to Nicole Kidman, the Olivier Award is sure to be hers, too. It would be daylight robbery if it wasn't. As it is, she steals this fierce, uncompromising play with a heart-stopping intensity.
It's not a play I want to describe in too much detail — it needs to be experienced fresh. But playwright Duncan Macmillan and director Jeremy Herrin bring a documentary-like fly-on-the-wall integrity to the storytelling that is combined with a heightened theatricality that takes us into her troubled, hallucinating mind that constantly unsettles. Nothing's clean-cut here: she's made up a version of herself that provides a heavy coat of protective armour around her — and its accentuated by the fact that she's an actress who is so accustomed to inhabiting other lives that she's forgotten how to take responsibility for inhabiting her own.
As she embarks on a journey towards reconciliation with her own mangled past, the play charts with brutal detail what led her there — and what now, thanks to group therapy and the 12-step programme, leads her out of it towards taking responsibility and making amends for the damage she's caused to herself and others. There's a particularly fine but upsetting scene with her long-suffering parents.
For those of us who've experienced the redeeming and liberating honesty that comes from working the Twelve Steps for ourselves, it comes very close to home; but it's also more than a mere public service announcement for the benefits of the programme. It shows how it is no easy ride but requires brave personal choices to see it through. Ultimately it is about human survival and resilience; and the very hard work that is required to do get through it.
But the play, though it is undeniably harrowing and hard to watch at times, is so full of empathy and feeling that — like the 12 Steps themselves— it works when you embrace it. It should also be stressed that it's not a one-woman show, either; there's a gorgeous ensemble around Gough of fellow patients, orderlies and therapists that also bring a piercing honesty to the play.
It is unmissable theatre — the play of the year.