Review: PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS, Trafalgar Theatre

Denise Gough is spectacular in this excoriating revival

By: May. 15, 2024
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Review: PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS, Trafalgar Theatre
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People, Places & ThingsIt’s nearly a decade since Denise Gough set the stage alight in Duncan MacMillan’s starkly raw study of addiction. She now reprises her Olivier and Critics' Circle Theatre Award-winning role as Emma for this harrowing and completely absorbing new production of People, Places & Things

Emma’s world is one of chaos; addicted to alcohol and every drug you can imagine. As she tries to get clean in a rehab clinic so she can return to work, she lies as only an addict can, both to herself and to everyone else. As an audience, we are as unsure of the boundaries of fantasy and reality as Emma herself, as we watch her struggle through the 12-step programme.

In a meta twist, Emma is also an actor; early on we see her falling apart as she performs in Chekhov’s The Seagull. She rejects religion, calls her own mother a c*** and defiantly resists help at every turn. To get better she must give herself up to the truth, but she can neither be trusted nor trust herself. If this sounds too glib, be assured that MacMillan’s painful humour and deft examination of humanity takes us on uncomfortable and vital immersion of Emma's journey.

People, Places & Things
Denise Gough as Emma and Sinéad Cusack as Therapist

Gough has recently revealed that she is a recovering addict herself. This gives her performance even more resonance and she surrenders herself to every tortuous corner of this role: she is absolutely without vanity as she takes us through the emotional and physical torture of addiction and its treatment. Gough gurns in Emma's drunken stupor, twitches painfully as she starts to withdraw and droops like a moody teenager as she sits in the hated group therapy sessions.

As well as often feeling like Gough is exposing a wound, she also shows the humanity in the character; Emma is highly intelligent, thoughtful and very funny, even as she is bent on self-destruction. It is a truly superb performance; knotty, gnarly and, at times, very ugly. You simply cannot take your eyes off her.

Almost inevitably, the rest of the roles are written more thinly, but Gough is ably supported by a great cast. Sinéad Cusack is wonderful as Emma’s weary mother, straightforward doctor and kindly therapist. Malachi Kirby is an incredibly strong presence as repeat inmate Mark, showing both the frustration and sad inevitability of relapse. 

People, Places & Things

Director Jeremy Herrin spares no punches in the sharply bleak and blackly comic story; he both examines and plays with Emma’s hallucinations, making the audience feel as uncomfortable as Emma at times. Bunny Christie’s clinically tiled set and Tom Gibbons’ unsettlingly loud sound design works brilliantly with James Farncombe’s staccato lighting; it is often as though you are taken into the deepest places of Emma’s fractious mind.

Staging, writing and acting meld into a pretty perfect production. However, this is very much Gough’s show; her mesmeric and urgent performance is a must-see.

People, Places & Things is at the Trafalgar Theatre until 10 August

Photo Credits: Marc Brenner


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