People, Places and Things review – Trafalgar Theatre, London ★★★★★

Photo: Marc Brenner

Review by Carla Rudgyard

After its roaring success at the National and the West End’s Wyndam’s Theatre, Duncan Macmillan’s exceptionally vivid and unfathomably human play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, is back for 14 weeks at the Trafalgar Theatre from the 3rd of May. This intoxicating, shocking and uncomfortable story is of addiction at its worst; of toxicity in all forms and of an actor/addict whose slippery grasp on reality spins her out of control.

Inside a brilliantly sterile, white-tiled box (iconically Bunny Christie) we meet a character. I say character, because we never quite know who’s speaking. Olivier award-winning Denise Gough’s ever morphing and deviously desperate performance as Emma is both remarkably captivating and terrifyingly deceptive.

As the play opens, Emma is performing in Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’, when her lines begin to slip away and blood starts to trickle from her nose in her inebriated state. It’s torturous to watch in all the best ways. Her descent into what you hope is her lowest mental point (spoiler alert: it’s not) is completely engrossing, and I couldn’t look away from that moment onwards. She checks herself into a rehabilitation centre as her life plummets deeper into a relentless fall towards hopeful sobriety. In rehab, we see the stages of drug withdrawal. Spidery body doubles crawl out of cracks in the set and creep across the stage (Polly Bennett) as the character grapples with hallucinations between booming and unsettling thuds (Tom Gibbons) that cut each scene like dips in consciousness.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Group therapy becomes a device where we learn about the past of those within the facility, satiating our innate desire to question why and how these people land there in the first place. Could it be Emma’s poisonous parents? Her rampant existentialism or need to pathologically lie? Whilst we wonder, her charmingly calm, all-knowing therapist (Sinéad Cusack) tries to work it out too. Fellow inpatient Mark (Malachi Kirby) also begins to delicately untangle Emma’s web of lies, with his comforting humour and groundedness.

This show accesses the bleakest parts of modern existence. Emma’s nihilistic point of view brings to light the absurdity of current society, as she laments the sickening frequency of ‘pictures of dead children next to adverts for skincare’ in everyday life. But this play isn’t as bleak as you’d expect. Somehow, Emma makes us laugh between intoxicated slurs. The writing is packed with this cunning humour, with each character possessing their own authentic idiosyncrasies that make them uniquely loveable.

It’s not the first, and I’m sure it won’t be the last play to explore addiction. But what’s special about People, Places & Things besides Gough’s astonishing performance, is the parallels drawn between the theatrical world and our own dwindling sense of identity. It’s a daunting display of the dysfunctional system we live in, and the people, places and things we use to remedy it.

People, Places & Things is at Trafalgar Theatre until 10 August 2024