Review: People, Places and Things, Trafalgar Theatre

A phenomenal performance from Denise Gough changes my mind about People, Places and Things, now revived at the Trafalgar Theatre

“Acting gives me the same thing I get from drugs and alcohol.
Good parts are just harder to come by”

Well, we’re all allowed to change our mind aren’t we. Nearly 10 years ago, I wasn’t much of a fan of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things either in its initial run at the National Theatre or at its subsequent West End transfer, though I did recognise that it was led by an absolute tour-de-force performance from Denise Gough. Jeremy Herrin’s production, originally for the National Theatre and Headlong now returns to the West End with Gough reprising her lead role at the Trafalgar Theatre.

This time around, something just clicked for me and I really got it. Gough plays Emma, an actress struggling with substance abuse issues as much as remembering Chekhov’s lines who is making her first move towards recovery by entering rehab. They’re baby steps to be sure, as she’s puffing away in reception and snorting lines off the desk and crucially, she’s adamant that the problem is with the world around her but as new rock bottoms are discovered, the sobering truth begins to reveal itself.

The blackest vein of humour runs through her performance in a way I didn’t remember. Her cutting jibes at those who would help her, her disdain at her fellow therapy group members, the unexpected physical comedy in trying to do the most basic tasks whilst under the influence. The laughs help because there’s so much darkness elsewhere, the desperation that comes with examining her life and the choices she’s made is haunting and the disorientation that comes with detoxing is spectacularly realised with a company of lookalike dancers (superb movement work from Polly Bennett) and real ingenuity emerging from every nook and cranny of Bunny Christie’s crucible-like design.

Alongside her, Sinéad Cusack is phenomenal as a trio of matriarchally-coded authority figures – Emma’s doctor, her therapist and finally her actual mother – challenging her in contrasting ways. The shifts between the three are subtly but definitively done, culminating in breath-taking work in the absolute gut punch of the final scene. Danny Kirrane finds a lovely openness as centre worker Foster and Malachi Kirby also excels as Mark, a fellow addict with an uncompromising line in honest talk. The shattering effects of addiction beyond the addicts themselves so deeply explored.

The only slight question mark I’d note is the wider issue around revivals of recent productions that replicate rather than truly revivify. I’ve been vocal about musicals like Grease and The Wizard of Oz returning and so it is only fair to treat plays in the same way, whether or not they’ve been critically acclaimed. Are revivals like this good for the theatre ecology in London? Is it naïve to wish for more risk-taking to be happening in the West End? Whilst it is here though, Gough’s performance really isn’t one to miss.

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