People, Places and Things, Trafalgar Theatre, 2024
Photo: Marc Brenner
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Trafalgar Theatre, Whitehall
  • Recommended


People, Places and Things

4 out of 5 stars

Denise Gough is still phenomenal, Duncan Macmillan’s existential addiction drama is still devastatingly clever


Time Out says

‘People, Places and Things’ in 2024 is never going to be quite the same thing as ‘People, Places and Things’ in 2015: so much of the thrill of its initial ascent lay in being there to watch actor Denise Gough explode in stature from relative unknown to all-time great right in front of our eyes.

As Jeremy Herrin’s original production of Duncan Macmillan’s smash addiction drama returns, it’s now a given that Gough – among other things now a fixture of the ‘Star Wars’ universe – will deliver a phenomenal performance. And she does! 

She is beyond tremendous as Emma, a booze-and-drugs-addled actor who we first meet slurring her way through a performance of ‘The Seagull’ before flaming out at a club night and checking herself into a rehab centre. Disorientated and pugnacious, as she dries out and gathers her wits she begins to rail against the 12-step programme and the very idea of sobriety, essentially declaring her self-destructive lifestyle to be an appropriate response to the pointlessness of human existence. Gough is magnificent and absurd in equal measure, a performance that’s simultaneously high comedy and high tragedy.

Still, the third time around I felt complacent enough about Gough’s greatness that some of the play’s flatter bits bothered me a little more. While Herrin’s kinetic production – with its pounding beats and screaming clones of Emma – is rarely boring, it does somewhat bog down once Emma sobers up and reluctantly agrees to therapy. Her newfound rehab bestie Mark is performed with engagingly laidback charisma by Malachi Kirby, but fundamentally all the parts bar Emma are fairly thin, or at least they are next to her one-woman opera. It’s difficult to accurately depict therapy on stage without succumbing to certain cliches.

Gough is magnificent and absurd in equal measure

It’s tricky, though, because the first half’s whiff of cliche feels like an effective way of lulling us into a false sense of security before a second half that has to rank as one of the greatest in twenty-first century drama. After entering rehab a second time, Emma confronts her parents with how much she's changed. Everything is set for her to be gratefully accepted back into the fold, for her recovery to be eulogised, for her and her parents to be able to collectively mourn her late brother Mark. And that… doesn’t happen. Her confrontation with her parents is devastating, each line from her mum and dad a mortal wound for the new shiny version of herself that Emma has assembled. 

It’s all the more devastating for their weary acceptance of her old self, interspersing some of the most devastating lines you’ll ever hear in the theatre with discussion of the three of them getting a takeaway that night. The device of having Sinéad Cusack play Emma’s affable doctor and therapist brilliantly pays off when she returns as the mum: we expect her to be kind and concerned and indeed maternal; she is not.

It’s a scene that flips the story on its head: before, you could reasonably say it was a play about rehab. After, it’s something more existential, a drama about how self-invention lies at the heart of the human experience, and how that hits its limits when other people – in this case Emma’s parents – simply have a different idea about who we are. And that’s not to say Emma – not her real name, btw – is actually right about who she is.

At some point ‘People, Places and Things’ needs to be set free from this production. A new director might freshen up the first half. Gough is too good to not turn herself towards something new. But there’s no rush. Minor quibbles aside, after a seven year break – going cold turkey if you will – this is the best sort of relapse.


Trafalgar Theatre
Rail/Tube: Charing Cross
£20-£150. Runs 2hr 20min

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