People, Places and Things at Trafalgar Theatre | Review

An era-defining play about addiction, love, care and identity. Duncan Macmillan’s People Places and Things is just as challenging, complex and compelling as it was when it debuted at the National Theatre nearly a decade ago.

Denise Gough as Emma and Sinéad Cusack as Therapist in People, Places & Things in the West End. Photo credit: Marc Brenner
Denise Gough as Emma and Sinéad Cusack as Therapist in People, Places & Things in the West End. Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Meet Nina/Emma/Sarah/Rachel (Denise Gough). After a quick powdery pick-me-up, she is checking into a rehab centre. Addiction has consumed her; her identity, her name, and her addiction appear uncertain, half-truths to her, but she has nothing else to cling to. Emma (for convenience’s sake) is in denial, denial not that she is addicted, but that addiction is a bad thing in the first place. But gradually, she opens herself to the prospect of the rehabilitation process. It is not easy though, engaging in scene imagination, and reckoning with her past all bring complications. But she makes progress, I think. Macmillan’s writing is insistently uncertain, rejecting comfortable narratives or assumptions at every turn. But in short, this is a play about addiction, and coming to terms with who we are and what we have done.

The stage is sparse, conjuring a sterile, almost dystopian playground for the flailing episodes of Emma. Undermining this is the subtle infusions of religion, an unmentioned door stands at the back of the stage, offering everyone an easy out, and church windows reflect on the walls. All this foregrounds and enhances Macmillan’s probing of how we form identity, beliefs and what faith means.

Gough is completely exceptional and is perfect in every way for this role. Electric on stage, her incredible presence is in a fascinating conflict with her aloof hard-to-read uncertainty. Often lingering in intimate moments with just the audience, we feel as though we understand everything and nothing of this layered, murky character. Her exchanges with The Doctor (Sinead Cuask), are brilliant, slowly peeking through the layers of the thematic questions and the ideas within Emma’s character. A stellar ensemble holds the piece together, bringing recognisability to a disorienting, challenging experience.

I should confess, that I think Duncan Macmillan is a generational writer. The piece makes me think of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, in that it has a profound understanding of the meaning and feeling of what it is to be alive. At no point does Macmillan allow you to come to comfortable conclusions about addiction, or the characters presented. He is constantly subverting, adding layers and making murky this meditation on identity, addiction and relationships.

5 Star Rating

Review by Tom Carter

Denise Gough – Emma
Sinéad Cusack – Doctor/Therapist/Mum
Malachi Kirby – Mark
Danny Kirrane – Foster
Kevin McMonagle – Dad/Paul
Holly Atkins – Charlotte/Ensemble
Paksie Vernon – Jodi/Ensemble
Ryan Hutton – Shaun
Ayò Owóyẹmi-Peters – Laura/Ensemble
Dillon Scott-Lewis – T/Ensemble
Russell Anthony – Ensemble
Louise Templeton – Ensemble

Duncan Macmillan – Writer
Jeremy Herrin – Director
Bunny Christie – Set Designer
Christina Cunningham – Costume Designer
James Farncombe – Lighting Designer
Matthew Herbert – Music
Tom Gibbons – Sound Designer
Andrzej Goulding – Video Designer
Polly Bennett – Movement
Jessica Ronane CDG CSA – Casting
Wendy Spon – Original Casting

Emma was having the time of her life. Now she’s in rehab. Her first step is to admit that she has a problem. But the problem isn’t with Emma, it’s with everything else.  She needs to tell the truth. But she’s smart enough to know that there’s no such thing. When intoxication feels like the only way to survive the modern world, how can she ever sober up?
Until 10 August 2024
Trafalgar Theatre, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY 

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