People Places and Things

Denise Gough reprises her Olivier Award winning role as Emma, an alcoholic, drug addicted actress who enters rehab in Duncan Macmillan’s thought-provoking People, Places and Things.  

Emma believes that the problem isn’t her, it’s the chaotic world around her. But, on the verge of self-destruction and because she needs a letter for work, she checks in to rehab. In a state of intoxication, she drunkenly stumbles, snorts one “final” line off the reception desk and gurns. The recovery process requires telling the truth, but she’s a compulsive liar. We aren’t sure if her brother died or if her name is really Emma. Fiercely intelligent, she navigates rehab as if she can control everything, when she is evidently out of control.  

Gough’s performance is fearless and funny. Emma’s mind and body are restless. Gough is rarely still; raw and agitated, she scratches her leg anxiously. Her edginess permeates through the audience and her kinetic energy made me twitchy. The ability to portray Emma as vulnerable and headstrong with equal force is mesmerising.  

In circle therapy we meet her fellow addicts who share their stories and practice conversations they will have in the outside world. Therapist is played by the brilliant Sinead Cusack, who triples up as Doctor and Mum. With the joke being that they all look like her Mum, Cusack changes her outfits and tweaks her gestures and accent to portray the “motherly” figures. Her delivery of a damning speech as Emma’s actual mother, cut right through me.  

The entire cast are superb. Kevin McMonagle’s heroin addict Paul is agonising to watch with his loud, shirtless outbursts. Danny Kirrane exudes kindness as Foster (a clinic worker/ addict) and is comical too. Malachi Kirby is the straight-talking Mark, who isn’t afraid to call Emma out on her BS and also sympathises with her when the others don’t. Kirby’s natural style and ease makes his character relatable. His exchanges with Gough are dynamic and delightful. Macmillan’s script cleverly compares the compulsion of acting with addiction as Emma confesses to Mark that she gets the same high from playing a part as she does from drugs, but parts are harder to come by!  

The powerful direction by Jeremy Herrin has multiple Emma’s on stage as she hallucinates during a come down. Accompanied by arresting, thudding music and the sound of bullets being fired into the Emmas’ convulsing bodies, we see a vivid picture of addiction.  

Bunny Christie’s clinic framing the stage is stark and striking all in white with bright lighting conjuring up the world of rehab. Some audience members seated at the back of the stage are close to the actors and the rest of us can see their reactions, which adds to the tension.   

The whole thing is compelling, but the night belongs to Gough; she’s extraordinary. A must-see.  

This show was reviewed on the 15th May 2024 at the Trafalgar Theatre, London where it runs until the 10th August 2024.  Tickets available here: People, Places and Things - Trafalgar Theatre

Review written by Victoria Willetts


Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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