Friday, 18 March 2016

INTERVIEW - Jeremy Herrin on directing People, Places & Things

Jeremy Herrin, pic credit Alex Rumford

WHEN People, Places & Things opened on the National Theatre's Dorfman stage last year it rightly won acclaim from the critics and audiences alike.
Written by Duncan Macmillan, it starred Denise Gough in an award-winning performance as Emma, an actress whose life had spiralled out of control thanks to a heady cocktail of drink and drugs.
After a particularly nasty binge she finds herself in rehab. Although it's clearly not a place she wants to be she tries to piece her life back together but it’s difficult especially as she can’t admit she has a problem.
Not surprisingly she finds herself clashing with everyone there from fellow patients to the staff and those trying to help her – and staying clean is far from easy.
Lurching from moments of despair to hope, it’s a constant struggle for Emma and the people, places and things which have an impact on her and her addictions.
So successful was the production that it has earned itself a transfer to the West End’s Wyndhams Theatre where it opens on Wednesday, March 23, something that its director Jeremy Herrin says he’s delighted about.
“It’s such a great story where you see the issue of recovery treated with honesty,” he tells me.
“The challenge of recovery really speaks to people whether they are plagued by those issues or not - it's a metaphor for endurance and struggle and people understand it.
"It's also very rare that you get a female role that is strong and central and but isn't sexualised.
"So it really spoke to me.”
The transfer has offered Jeremy and the cast – all of whom have come back to do it – a chance to revisit the piece - and make a few changes.
“It’s a real privilege to go back to a show,” he says warmly. “Elements will be different – the staging for example because it’s a completely different theatre space in that we have gone from the Dorfman to a beautiful Victorian playhouse.
“There is also a new bit of writing in Act 1 where Emma’s relationship with the rest of the group is more interesting.
“The big challenge is to make sure you don’t get carried away with yourself - you have to maintain integrity. You start again and remember what’s important about the story.”
To that end the Brockley-based director says research was a key part of the process in bringing the piece to life. He says he and the cast were fortunate to have a wealth of material to draw on including organisations based in South London.
"First and foremost it's entertainment," he says. "It's very funny but also very dark and tragic and the character of Emma brings out all those emotions in her story.
"But we were all aware that in plays such as this we have a responsibility to our audience. There may be people who come and see it who have had first hand experience of the kind of things Emma is going through and for them it's a matter of life or death.
"We have got a responsibility to reflect honestly that experience because someone might turn up and look to the show for a pointer.
"They may be recovering addicts or know people who are. So we have to be sensitive and respectful. But at the same time it’s got to function for those who don’t have those issues.
"Research was key to make sure we get the portrayal right and do it justice."
During rehearsals, the cast had testimonials and visits from various organisations that deal with the issues presented in the play including The Priory, AA and proponents of the 12-Step programme of recovery.
They also had input from Catford-based Freedom Recovery Centre something Jeremy says was invaluable.
"This group was amazing," he says warmly. "We went to see them and they were really great providing detail and support. It was so inspiring to see them face their demons.
"We invited them to come and see the show when it was at the Dorfman and they said it was an honest portrayal about the process, the moments of despair and the triumphs, without it being sensational."
And he says it was the story as well as the quality of the writing that was a factor in his original decision to take it on.
“I love new writing and my preference is to do something new and that talks to the world,” he says.
“What made this extra special was that the trinity of the production, the performances and the play met in a really blessed way.
“However it’s always good to dip into the classics – Shakespeare was a new writer at one point and it’s great that those texts are being revived. But I try and do something different, keep moving and have new challenges.”
So what’s his next challenge I ask.
It seems Jeremy is in high demand and lists a forthcoming tour of Frank McGuiness’s play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme and a revival of This House, which was another which he brought initially to the National.
He also runs Headlong, a theatre company which Jeremy says is very exciting not least because he’s in the envious position of getting government support to commission and produce their own work.
But he’s also very much involved with his organisation, Stage Directors UK, which he helped set up to represent directors.
“It has existed for over a year and has about 250 members,” he says. “We have campaigned on issues such as fees, fair pay and ensuring we look after young directors who are coming into the profession.”
And Jeremy says this is particularly important in London given the high cost of living.
“I moved to Brockley from Newcastle in 2008 and have been very happy," he says. "My kids go to a local school, we have nice neighbours and live in a friendly community.
“But if I was starting out now I couldn’t afford to live here. I cycle through Elephant & Castle every day and although it looks impressive I do feel very let down because of the lack of affordable housing. It’s really difficult for people.”
But for now, People, Places & Things is uppermost in his mind.
“It’s such a great piece of writing," he says. "So it’s a real privilege to go back, have another look at it and introduce it to more people. We are very pleased."

People, Places & Things is on at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road until Saturday June 18. Ticket cost from £15. Visit or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

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