Plays about addiction and the effects substance abuse has on both mental health and relationships certainly seem to be in vogue. Nowhere was this idea more astutely and triumphantly realised than in the National Theatre's production of Duncan Macmillan's People Places and Things, a play that utilised its entire scenography to create a powerful and harrowing exploration of how addiction can affect the lives of so many people.
Zach Helm's slightly underwhelming attempt at a similar theme succeeds to some degree, but his characters never quite click with the audience in the same way. Jack and Annie are a young married couple living in New York, artistic types who are supported by Jack's life as a successful debut novelist. As he pushes his career forward, he's held back by Annie's addiction, and rather than address it head on he lets it fester.
It's all a bit functional and clinical, the narrative moving along sometimes at a glacial pace at the expense of any meaty characterisation away from the obvious. It takes a long time to warm up, and I couldn't help feel that Helm plays his cards too early and lays his central characters on the table straight away, leaving little to be developed. A plot revelation in the second act threatens to change the pace, but the stakes never feel particularly high enough for it to really cause much turbulence.
There's some commanding support from characters who include his book publisher, an esteemed book reviewer and Annie's dealer, but each feel undeveloped and are only adjuncts to the relationship of Annie and Jack. Freya Mavor gives a striking and committed portrayal of Annie, a character completely on the brink, but sadly we're never given enough light and shade to really invest in, or quite frankly care for her journey. She's petulant, irresponsible and fractious, there's no soft edge to her with or without the drugs, and I found it difficult to personally invest in her struggle. Harry Lloyd gives a stable and sensible performance as the put-upon Jack, offering the right amount of sympathy and understanding to ground both his character and situation.
For the unevenness in the text, John Malkovich's astute and efficient direction gives the play the best chance of connecting with an audience, using a variety of techniques to draw out the key themes and relationships. Gentle moments work more convincingly than the aggressive ones, and the finest moment in the play is told in silence with subtitles projected above the two characters. He finds a natural pace and rhythm to each scene that keeps allows Anne and Jack's relationship to feel genuine, and whilst the answers may not be clear in the text, Malkovich allows his actors room to make these moments crystal clear, yet never indulgent.
Nicolas Errera's original music and Jon Nicholls sound design becomes a little too deliberate at times, manipulating the situation at points that become overly filmic and anti-theatrical. Pierre-Francois Limbosch relies heavily on computer projection, which for all their high-definition sometimes lack a tangible substance to contextualise the action. Impressive in its delivery and stunning to observe, the video panels are best used when they work alongside the action to enhance, rather than just provide a digital backdrop.
Helm's overall message is important and worthy of exploration, but I found myself unable to fully connect and empathise with his faintly drawn characters and his sentimental conclusion didn't offer the bite that the subject justly deserves.