Trafalgar Theatre

PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS at the Trafalgar Theatre


“a gripping performance that shoots up right into our bloodstream”

In Duncan Macmillan’s unsettling play, “People, Places and Things”, we are taken headlong into the mind of an addict in forensic detail. Without the need of a surgeon’s eye glass or scalpel we witness the outer layers being peeled back by the incisive dialogue, the razor-sharp acting. But also Jeremy Herrin’s staging which is inseparable from Bunny Christie’s set design that pulses throughout to the distorted and fractured rhythms of the protagonist’s identity. Identities even, whether they are true or false. We are never sure, and neither is she. How can you lie about who or what you are when you believe there is no truth to begin with?

‘She’ is Nina, drunkenly murdering Chekhov’s iconic dialogue. But then she is Emma, taking a line of cocaine before reluctantly checking into rehab. Then again, she might not even be Emma. One thing we are certain of, though, is the sheer, brutal brilliance of Denise Gough’s portrayal of this complex and compelling character. We cannot escape her, trapped as she is in Christie’s white tiled set with its hidden doors and camouflaged ventilation grids that allow little breathing space. It bursts into chaotic crashes of techno nightlife before melting back into the mundane sobriety of a rehab clinic. Everything is an extension of her mind, even the people.



A running gag is the fact that Emma’s therapist and doctor are the spitting image of her mother. Sinéad Cusack gives a stunning performance in all three roles including the mother, highlighting the contrasts and the similarities of each character. The therapist’s ‘cruel-to-be-kind’ approach offset by the mother’s bitter, beaten, and threadbare love for a daughter she thinks doesn’t deserve it. Similarly, Kevin McMonagle doubles as a crazed rehab patient, re-emerging as Emma’s father in Act Two. There is no moralising here. Just a bare dissection of grief in the wake of a dead son and brother.

The fall out of addiction is the core of the piece, and we see it through Emma’s eyes. Macmillan offers no judgement whatsoever as each aspect is picked apart. Gough takes us on an authentic journey through the milestones of denial, anger, anxiety, paranoia, truculence, withdrawal. A personality shattered into many shards, none of them trustworthy or trusting. Nightmares unfold before her eyes as Emma emerges in multiple forms, crawling from the walls, out of the bed, twitching and spinning around her until you can’t really tell which one is the real Emma. James Farncombe’s lighting plunges us into Emma’s drug-fuelled blackouts with a ferociousness matched by Tom Gibbons’ soundscape.

Mercifully there is hope. Malachi Kirby, as fellow user Mark, describes himself as a ’scream in search of a mouth’ but ends up working at the clinic as a volunteer. He has more than a second sight. All knowing, he helps pull the truth from Emma as she eventually tries to ‘come clean’ – in all senses of the word. Not everybody is so lucky. We learn how profoundly difficult it is for the addict to avoid the people, places and things that can, at any time, trigger a relapse. The emotional confrontations are frighteningly true to life and at times devastating. Yet the miracle is that there is still plenty of room for humour, and the central theme of addiction steps back once in a while to let these multi-layered personalities fill the stage. There is a humanity in all the performances that transcends the subject matter. Yet it is always there, as a grim and palpitating pulse. And at its heart is Gough – in a gripping performance that shoots up right into our bloodstream. The play is truly addictive.


PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS at the Trafalgar Theatre

Reviewed on 15th May 2024

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Marc Brenner



Previously reviewed at this venue:

JERSEY BOYS | ★★★★ | August 2021



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