Review: People, Places and Things at Cambridge Arts Theatre is haunting, funny and beautifully staged

People, Places and Things at Cambridge Arts Theatre

People, Places and Things at Cambridge Arts Theatre - Credit: Archant

The title of this play will mean something immediately to anyone who knows about addiction. To recover, you need to stay away from the people who might encourage you to relapse, the places you go to get high and the things that are triggers.

The main character, Emma, who has just arrived for rehab says: “People, places and things - that’s everything, what else is there?”

Emma, played with luminesence by Lisa Dwyer Hogg, is on the stage for the entire play. We see her falling apart, pulling herself together, refusing help one moment and pleading for it the next. It should be too harrowing to bear but it isn’t because the script is sharp and witty and gentle humour is wrapped round almost every line. And the lines are delivered so well. Emma is an actress, the worst job in the world for someone who seeks approbation - there is rejection at every turn. Dwyer Hogg’s performance brings everything home.

Dwyer Hogg’s Emma shows a kaleidescope of character traits, telling a range of stories about herself so we are never sure what is true. How can we be, when Emma isn’t entirely sure herself.

And around her are exemplary performances. Trevor Fox is a master of aggression as the disturbed Paul and later charming as Emma’s mild-mannered father. Matilda Ziegler is droll as the doctor, the therapist and Emma’s mum. Ekow Quartey is adroit as Foster the nurse, as is Andrew Sheridan as fellow patient Mark. They all add a grounded, natural and often amusing foil to Emma’s shakes and tantrums.

The play by Duncan Macmillan, premiered at The National Theatre in 2015. The action takes place in a rehab clinic. We see nothing but white tiles but Bunny Christie’s clever set has beds, en suite loos and medicine cupboards sliding out of the walls and back again - as if they are illusions. At times, we see five identical Emmas as she halucinates about what is happening.

This is a fast-paced show, beautifully written, skillfully directed, brilliantly staged and flawlessly performed.

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To have presented a play about drug and alcohol addiction with so much honesty (addicts return again and again to clinics because giving up is so hard) yet with such a light touch that there are smiles on the audience’s faces is a real tonic. This is a fix of theatre.

People Places and Things is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, November 25.

Angela Singer