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Mark Shenton: Life-changing shows are the holy grail of theatregoing

Denise Gough and Barbara Marten in People, Places and Things. Photo: Johan Persson Denise Gough and Barbara Marten in People, Places and Things. Photo: Johan Persson
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Theatrical epiphanies are the holy grail of going to the theatre: shows and performances that leave you on a real high, feeling like you’ve experienced something truly transformative. Like drug addicts, we constantly crave that all-too-elusive high.

So it’s appropriate that the latest show to supply it in the West End is a show about getting high – but also getting sober again. London theatregoers have been getting high on Denise Gough’s astonishing performance in Duncan Macmillan’s searing People, Places and Things, about recovery from addiction, ever since it first appeared at the National Theatre last year. Two weeks ago, Gough rightly took the Olivier award for best actress for a performance she feels extraordinarily invested in and committed to.

The night after her Olivier win, she took the trophy out on stage with her for the curtain call. She told The Observer: “Emma lives every night because people are coming to see it. It is quite an intense thing to sit through. I can hear people reacting. So at the end I wanted to say, I am all right. You are all right.”

Gough knows the language of empathy, but also of care and self-care. We are in safe hands with her, and she with us. She is the medium of the play’s message: “I have been doing this role since last year and the play means more to me than normal, because of the people I have met and the people it might be helping. When people write things about the production, that is not me. I am just doing my job. It is only that people are now seeing it. It is all technique and years of experience, not magic,” she insists.

But there is a kind of magic in sitting in a rapt theatre watching her go through the play’s shattering journey of recovery. In the 12-steps programme her character undertakes, the final step is: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” The play is a living embodiment of taking that message further.

As a human being, I’m practising that 12th step myself, as I’ve shared my own journey towards recovery from addiction and depression; as a critic, it is also my professional duty to try to carry the message of a play such as this to the world.

So this play – and Gough’s deeply felt, finely etched performance – meant a great deal to me. Of course, not all shows will resonate as deeply, or as personally thanks to a direct shared experience (though I’ve not been in rehab myself).

But theatre and great performances also take us to worlds outside our own lives. I’m not a stage mother channelling my own thwarted theatrical ambitions through my children, but Imelda Staunton’s ferocious performance as Momma Rose in Gypsy moved me deeply, too. Likewise, Mark Rylance as hippy outsider Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem. These performances were so utterly and deeply inhabited and uninhibited that I felt like a personal witness to their world.

But while shows such as these are life-changers, in every sense, others are transformative thanks to the sheer joy that seeing them brings. There was no more exhilarating musical for me than Bend It Like Beckham, which filled me with joy every time I saw it. I recently met a cast member on the train who told me how the cast would love it when I was in, as they would always catch sight of my beaming face.

Being told that has filled me with another kind of joy: it’s so lovely when your own pleasure becomes someone else’s. I feel the same way whenever I get thank you messages from readers who’ve seen a show on the basis of my recommendation, as many did after I shared my passion for another musical about a life-changing event, Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion, which is now touring the US. Its songs are being turned into animated videos, such as the extraordinarily moving Weather the Storm.

Then there are the shows that leave you defiantly on the outside looking in, while others appear to be let right inside. Such was the experience for me of watching the current Royal Court, London, premiere of Alistair McDowall’s sci-fi play X, which has definitely divided critics, from The Stage’s Tom Wicker, who gave it five stars, to The Times’ Ann Treneman, who awarded it just one.

I’m afraid I concurred with The Stage’s regular contributor Matt Trueman, who wrote: “His play means anything, everything and nothing at once – whatever you want and whatever I want. It’s theatre as black hole and, at base, it’s a trick shot. You spend all your energy chasing its meaning, battling to unravel its coding, only to find bog-standard ideas beneath. For all I admire the concept and daring, I was left thinking: Y?”

Why indeed? Yet I also won’t write off such conflicts of opinion. Any theatre that gets us thinking and talking has to be a good thing.

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