© Marc Brenner


Hattie Lloyd 17/05/24

People, Places and Things

People, Places and Things was a massive deal when it premiered at the National Theatre in 2015.

It was a career-defining role for Denise Gough, who went on to win an Olivier and Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress. It brought in a dozen other nominations for the play itself, for director Jeremy Herrin, and multiple aspects of the design. And it left critics and audiences reeling from its heart-rending depiction of addiction, later transferring to the West End and New York to equally rapturous acclaim.

Well, now it’s back.

And if that sounds like a near-impossible act to follow, then we’ll just assure you right from the off that this production of People, Places and Things at the Trafalgar Theatre remains an extraordinary theatrical tour de force. Macmillan’s play is a tightly wound juggernaut that ambushes with comedy while delivering an emotional sucker-punch to the gut.

people places and things

© Marc Brenner

Gough reprises her impressively layered performance as Emma, an actor whose extensive drug & alcohol use has begun to affect her work, giving her the final push into rehab. She arrives with the same ‘means to an end’ attitude that fuels her addiction in the first place: if she checks in and does the time, she’ll get the certificate that can get her back into work.

The doctor (a brilliantly unflappable Sinéad Cusack), meanwhile, wants to dig into Emma’s trauma. Emma feels fraudulent, and frustrated: there’s no definitive root cause, no neat beginning, middle and end to her addiction – after all, “it’s the world that’s f*cked.” Overwhelmed by a deluge of depressing news punctuated by ‘adverts for skincare’, she uses drugs and alcohol like she uses her time on stage: a way to rage against a world that is simultaneously mundane and too chaotic to bear.

Gough’s performance is astonishing. It’s a feat of physical and emotional endurance to perform at this level once, let alone to deliver it every night of a 16 week run. She draws out the physical comedy of the show’s early scenes just as fluently as she plays Emma’s flashes of vulnerability – a breathing, writhing, human mess in the sterility of Bunny Christie’s scleral-white set. But this stark, controlled environment is leaky; as Emma goes cold turkey it bursts at the seams with feverish visuals, flooded with a soundtrack of techno white noise so loud it makes your teeth crackle.

people, places and things trafalgar theatre
© Marc Brenner

In the wake of this sensory onslaught, there is tenderness and empathy. Macmillan pulls into focus the fragility of human existence: what it takes for addicts to first ‘get well’, but then stay well, one day at a time. His mastery of bathos allows for plenty of dark humour, but he frequently flips the joke to tease out its depth. Take the Wile E. Coyote gag which turns out to be a surprisingly profound observation: he only ever falls off a cliff when he looks down.

We’re left wondering whether it’s more valid to find meaning in belief or in reality. Emma performs to ‘live vividly’, to escape from the ‘bullshit’ of the real world by condensing a character’s life into the most dramatic moments, with ‘all the boring bits taken out’. To her, the mechanics of the real world – justice, money, politics – are just like theatre. They too depend on our collective agreement to believe.

And on this stage, theatre feels as real as it gets. The audience almost breathes as one. We respond audibly to every development. We all go through the emotional wringer together, and it’s electrifying.


NOTE: People, Places and Things runs at the Trafalgar Theatre until 10th August. Tickets start at £35 and you can book HERE.

People, Places and Things | Trafalgar Theatre, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY

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People, Places and Things

Trafalgar Theatre, 14 Whitehall, Charing Cross, SW1A 2DY