Arts Review Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: People, Places & Things by Pangdemonium!

Acceptance is just the first step on the long road to recovery.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Tracie Pang)9
Script (Duncan Macmillan)8
Performance (Sharda Harrison, Shona Benson, Rebecca Ashley Dass, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Krissy Jesudason, Keagan Kang, Shane Mardjuki, Victoria Mintey, Adrian Pang, Jamil Schulze, and Tan Guo Lian Sutton)9
Production Design (Philip Engleheart)8
Lighting Design (James Tan)8
Multimedia Design (Genevieve Peck)8
Sound Design (Jing Ng/Daniel Wong)8
Total58/70 (83%)
Final Score:★★★★☆

Reality is perhaps one of the most terrifying things we experience on a daily basis, so much that for some people, just the idea of waking up can be absolute torture. It’s no wonder that there are those who choose to engage in self-destructive behaviours as a form of escapism to numb the pain, just for a while. The more one uses such coping mechanisms though, the more one becomes reliant on them, to the point of addiction, with no easy way back to normalcy.

While addiction is not a new issue explored on stage, Pangdemonium’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things offers us a rare unflinching, unsentimental look at the long and difficult journey towards sobriety. What also makes the play rather different is our protagonist – Emma (Sharda Harrison), an actress who checks into a rehabilitation centre after a drug-fuelled episode takes place during work, and allows Macmillan to draw parallels between the rehab process towards recovery, and the rehearsal process in theatre.

Directed by Tracie Pang, People, Places & Things is fully intended to get audience members to immerse themselves in Emma’s experience. Running at nearly three hours long, the duration of the play feels like a deliberate attempt to make audience members feel the seemingly arduous process of getting clean, step by stressful step. In so doing, we understand the full gamut of the euphoric highs to the crash of the comedown, and feel every moment impressed upon our psyche.

People, Places & Things isn’t afraid to establish discomfort and disorientation from the very beginning. Staged at the new Singtel Waterfront Theatre at the Esplanade, Pangdemonium has opted for an unusual traverse stage set-up, where audiences are seated on either side of the stage. All eyes are always fixed on the actors, always exposed with nowhere to hide. The opening scene is set in the midst of a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, where Emma, as Nina, fumbles her way through her lines and collapses into a heady, neon-hued club scene. Emma, high and completely out of it, dances to the thump-thumping of the bass amidst a group of ravers for an extended period of time, before passing out and finding herself at the lobby of the rehab centre. All that we see happen onstage is processed through Emma’s perspective, at times jumping across days and weeks, as a means to represent the lost time experienced during recovery, and we feel Emma’s resulting confusion, pushing past the physical exhaustion to make sense of where she is.

The remainder of the play then takes place primarily within the white, gridded walls of the rehab centre, and everything feels somewhat terrifying, with the sense of fear and paranoia setting in early on. Emma cannot remember what Foster, the staff assisting her, looks like, with actors Keegan Kang and Jamil Schulze standing in for each other across various scenes. Both the doctor and therapist resemble her mother (all played by Shona Benson), and James Tan’s lighting affords the centre a cold, clinical atmosphere, mostly bare and unwelcoming.

Most haunting though, is when Emma goes cold turkey, which causes her to begin hallucinating in the solitude of her own room. Philip Engleheart’s production design is especially important throughout this ordeal, with hidden doors and built-in elements in the walls that open up to allow for quick, smooth set changes, alongside Genevieve Peck’s multimedia and projections, that transform the clinical rehab centre into a darkened, nightmare-scape. The detox process is like something out of a horror film, with Tracie Pang taking artistic license to turn it into a surreal experience, filled with spectral hallucinations and representations of violent, excruciating torture. As messy as she is, you sympathise with her on account of how much pain she’s going through.

Yet, this is the easy part, and the real challenge comes when Emma is forced to participate in group therapy with the other addicts in the centre. Reluctant and resistant to the process, to Emma, the process is baffling and ridiculous, and she sees herself as above it, only participating for the sake of ‘graduating’. Seated in a circle of plastic chairs, the set-up closely resembles that of an actor’s circle during rehearsal, and the group does in fact undergo a rehearsal process, as each member shares their own backstory, and practice a conversation they might have once they return to society. As an actress, Emma takes to this all too naturally, and rather than volunteer her own story, remains a conduit to take on and lose herself in the role of these addicts’ parents, siblings, friends and more, finding it easier to be someone else than genuinely herself.

The contrast is all too clear when comparing how these addicts on the brink of tears tell their stories of abusive partners and tragic backstories, while Emma’s expression remains a blank canvas, deliberately detached. This attitude jeopardises the recovery of the entire group, as she refuses to let down her guard and share a shred of truth with the group, and is rightfully called out for it. It takes an angry breakdown, a near-death incident, and a second attempt at rehab to finally make any progress, where Emma finally decides to be vulnerable and share a grain of honesty about her real life with the group. It is only when she comes to terms with how far she’s fallen that she can confront her traumas, and make the first steps towards enacting actual change in her life.

Again, this entire process is a harrowing one, and it is to the credit of the ensemble and Tracie Pang’s direction that they play their roles and characters so well. Shona Benson, as both therapist and doctor, nails the subtle differences in their character, voice and physicality, always feeling like a stern mother figure to Emma. Adrian Pang, as a particularly volatile addict, brings both shock and explosive force to his role when he lashes out, alongside an equally surprising softness when he changes for the better later on. Shane Mardjuki, as Mark, offers just the right amount of closeness and attitude that makes him seem like a brother to Emma, whether sneakily sharing a cigarette, to telling her the hard truths, to simply being a pillar of support in the second half of the play.

As for the remaining cast members, Rebecca Ashley Dass, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, Krissy Jesudason, Keagan Kang, Victoria Mintey, Jamil Schulze, and Tan Guo Lian Sutton form the remainder of the all-important ensemble, each one nailing the unique accents they’ve been cast with, ranging from chav to cockney. No matter how big or small a role each member had, each one was integral to making the world of People, Places & Things all the more realistic. Despite having few speaking lines, each member is given sufficient time to explain their stories and imbue them with enough emotion to make them feel authentic. This is also helped by good costume coordination, which subtly reinforces their personalities and backgrounds. Especially in group scenes, where they are often tasked to perform complex choreography and movement sequences, they have rehearsed to the point where such transitions feel smooth, and the result of their commitment to each scenario is a beautiful mix of madness and dreamy.

But what the play hinges on entirely for its success is how well its Emma performs. Absent from the stage since her role in The Son in 2020, Sharda Harrison’s return to theatre is a welcome one, and as Emma, Pangdemonium couldn’t have cast someone better suited and skilled to play the role. No doubt one of the most challenging roles she’s been given, Sharda is onstage for the entirety of the performance, always remaining in character as she rapidly goes from a state of ecstasy to suffering a seizure in detox. She flings caustic retorts and quotes academia to build a facade of intelligence. She allows her face to contort when she displays an ugly, dismissive attitude, and at her lowest, her voice becomes desperate and begging for help as she nurses a bloodied and bruised face. You understand that this is a woman who lives for every little high she can get, be it from the adrenaline rush of the stage or a drug-fuelled madness, all this to run away from life, and to petulantly show the world that she can be master of her own destiny, without realising how much it’s already consumed her.

Emma is a complex character that requires the actress playing her to be in tip-top mental and physical condition to remain on form throughout the play, always aware of how she should be, and always toeing the line between performance and raw vulnerability. Sharda does it all, layering Emma with enough nuance to root for her amidst the messiness, to understand the walls she puts up around herself, and at its heart, to sympathise with all that she’s going through, a woman who has all her life, been trying to exert control over the chaos within her. Beyond this, Sharda still layers it with her own style and personality. When Emma is willing to share a crumb of her actual life and reality is when Sharda accesses that same truth buried deep within herself, and speaks the line, punched into reality with genuine feeling, and delivering it with a force that seems to come from a dark place she recognises all too well.

Because of its dedication to brutal honesty, People, Places & Things does not end happily. Despite all the progress she makes, there is simply no easy solution to turning Emma’s life around. The penultimate scene of People, Places & Things sees her ready for the ‘show’, all her ‘rehearsals’ preparing for the moment she apologises and asks for forgiveness a big moment about to unfold. It goes against everything she has been taught to do – to avoid the people, places and things that could act as a trigger for her, yet she chooses to throw herself into the lion’s den, convinced that if she can stay sober after overcoming this hurdle, then nothing can stop her. Yet the longer the scene stretches on, the more she realises how little control she actually has. By the end of it, she is left a wreck, death by a thousand paper cuts, as she realises that her journey is far from over.

While People, Places & Things deals specifically with the idea of substance abuse and addiction, there is something to be said about how at the heart of it all, everyone is trying to gain some kind of control over their own lives to make it through each day. There remains a twisted admiration for Emma, who we see as someone who recognises her own deficiencies and weaknesses, yet strives to become someone of importance, all while fighting off the dread of waking up each day thinking you’re not enough. Every day is a battle, and Emma chooses to fight on, rather than let the darkness fully consume her.

The road to recovery is a long and lonely one, requiring immense work and support from those around them. To recover is to admit your own powerlessness, that you’ve made mistakes in life and that you have to make amends with the people you’ve hurt. To recover means to still choose to want sobriety amidst all of these difficulties. And sometimes, it is all we can do to let loose and let go of the things we cannot control, to come out from the masks we wear daily, to live authentically and be real with the people around us, in the hopes that the burden and the pain of living become just a little easier to bear.

Photo Credit: Pangdemonium

People, Places & Things plays from 25th March to 9th April 2023 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre, Esplanade. Tickets available here

2 comments on “★★★★☆ Review: People, Places & Things by Pangdemonium!

  1. Pingback: Preview: Doubt – A Parable by Pangdemonium! – Bakchormeeboy

  2. Pingback: Doubt – A Parable: An Interview with director Timothy Koh and the cast of Pangdemonium’s newest show – Bakchormeeboy

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