Acting is a useful metaphor (one man in his life plays many parts, etc), and in this portrait of addiction, therapy and recovery author Duncan Macmillan squarely – and a bit riskily – makes his central character, an alcoholic and drug addict, an actress whose problem includes not being sure who she really is. We first see her skidding off-piste as Nina in a production of The Seagull. Ushered incoherent off the stage, in Bunny Christie’s uncompromising white-tiled tunnel of a transverse set she finds herself at the reception desk of a rehab institution, shouting “Cunt!” down the phone at her mother.
In arrogant exchanges with a doctor (Barbara Marten) Emma says that she just wants a quick fix, a “tune-up” and a certificate that she no longer presents a risk to employers. She vents petulant, shuddering boozed-up benzodiazepine rage when told that it will take weeks if not months, and that she will have to join group therapy and follow an AA “twelve-step” programme, accepting both responsibility and weakness, calling on “a higher power”, . and making amends.
She derides the idea of higher power, spouting jumbled defiance of the therapist she considers her intellectual inferior, citing Derrida and Foucault and generally being vile. Her room rises spookily from the floor: director Jeremy Herrin in Headlong tradition pulls no punches in visually and aurally involving us in maelstrom of hallucination and withdrawal. But our heroine won’t co-operate with group therapy, and the risk of making her a self-absorbed actress – rather than someone from an unglamorous life, who also might get addicted – lies in the possibility that away from the earnest Dorfman audience, her thespian posing and showy scraps of Streetcar and Fukuyama might drain all sympathy.
It nearly did even for me, and I revere actors and understand the reality of addiction. Denise Gough gives a storming and courageous performance, a draining and career-making turn; but Macmillan’s unflinching evocation of a person chemically hollowed out into a deluded, self-obsessed, lying, treacherous, greedy ball of rage is so strong that you hover between pity and revulsion. Still wincing from compassion-fatigue after Stef Smith’s “Swallow’- where the self-harming heroine blames her behaviour on everything from 9/11 to Auschwitz – I lost empathy when this Emma cited global miseries and distant war zones yowling “Self-medication is the only way to survive in a world that is broken”. Even though she claims her brother’s death as excuse, it later transpires that she was so well away even before it that she didn’t get to the funeral.
On the other hand, Emma’seloquence is such that once or twice you switch sides and wonder whether the author’s target is actually the pious , “boredom and shame and fucking orange squash” culture of the rehab industry (it’s never explained who pays, by the way). Marten, doubling as the doctor and group leader, has exactly the kind of fuzzy grey hairdo which makes normal people fear therapists; and the sharply played ensemble group, once launched into antiphonal fragments of glum back-story, hover between pitiable and plain depressing.
But take heart. The second act, in which after a fresh crisis Emma capitulates, is far more engaging. And there is a harsh, truthful and rather brilliant twist at the end when we are reminded that the slightly cultish role-playing and warm mutual support of group meetings is not necessarily a realistic preparation for confronting the family your addiction spent years destroying. Overcoming addiction is indeed something to celebrate and praise: but not everyone has to join in straight away.
box office 0207 452 3000 to 4 Nov