People, Places & Things ★★★★★

Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things has returned to the London stage, bringing with it a whirlwind of critical acclaim and leaving audiences exhilarated and emotionally drained.

Let’s start with the basics. Our protagonist, Emma (played by the incomparable Denise Gough), is an actress whose relationship with substances is far more committed than her relationship with the stage. When her addiction spirals out of control, she finds herself in rehab, facing a battle not just with her demons, but with the very concept of reality.

From the moment the curtain rises (metaphorically speaking, of course – this is modern theatre, darling, so no actual curtain), we’re plunged into Emma’s fractured world. Director Jeremy Herrin, clearly not content with just breaking the fourth wall, is determined to smash it into a million pieces. The result is astoundingly disorientating – but wonderfully so. Bunny Christie’s set design is a masterclass in sterile chic. The stark, clinical environment of the rehab center serves as both a literal and metaphorical blank canvas for Emma’s journey – but the set magically transforms itself in multiple ways, especially in the final scene.

Now, let’s talk about Denise Gough. Oh, Denise, Denise, Denise. Her performance as Emma is nothing short of phenomenal. She doesn’t just act the role; she inhabits it with such intensity that you half expect her to melt into the floorboards. Gough’s Emma is a whirlwind of contradictions – vulnerable yet defiant, intelligent yet self-destructive. She delivers her lines with the precision of a surgeon and the unpredictability of a firework. One moment she’s cracking jokes that could make a sailor blush, the next she’s laying bare her soul with gut-wrenching honesty. It’s no wonder she won an Olivier for this role in its previous run – if they could, they’d probably invent a new award just for her performance. The supporting cast, while somewhat overshadowed by Gough’s tour de force, hold their own admirably. Malachi Kirby as Mark delivers a performance that grows as steadily as the tension in the group therapy sessions. His speech towards the end of the first act is a highlight, delivered with a finesse that would make even the most hardened theatre critic reach for their handkerchief. Sinead Cusack and Kevin McMonagle shine in multiple roles, proving that versatility is the spice of theatre life.

Macmillan’s script delights in keeping the audience off-balance, blurring the lines between reality and performance. Is Emma truly seeking recovery, or is this just another role for her to play? The beauty of the play lies in its refusal to provide easy answers.

James Farncombe’s lighting design is a symphony of light and shadow that perfectly captures Emma’s shifting mental state. One moment we’re bathed in the harsh fluorescents of the rehab center, the next we’re plunged into the surreal glow of Emma’s drug-induced hallucinations. Polly Bennett’s movement direction deserves a standing ovation of its own. During Emma’s more hallucinatory moments, the ensemble moves with an unsettling fluidity, transforming from fellow patients to nightmare apparitions and back again. It’s like watching a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life – disturbing, yet impossible to look away from.

The play’s structure is as unconventional as its subject matter. The first half is a slow burn, taking its time to establish Emma’s world and the rhythms of rehab life. But just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, the second half kicks into high gear, hurtling towards a conclusion that feels both inevitable and surprising.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the play is its exploration of the parallels between addiction and acting. Emma’s assertion that acting gives her the same high as drugs is a fascinating hook that the play returns to again and again. It raises uncomfortable questions about the nature of performance, both on stage and in life. Are we all just playing roles, constructing our own realities? And if so, what happens when those constructions come crashing down? The play doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of addiction. Emma’s manipulations, her lies, her selfishness – all are laid bare for the audience to see. Yet somehow, thanks to Gough’s nuanced performance and Macmillan’s empathetic writing, we never lose sight of Emma’s humanity.

As the play hurtles towards its conclusion, it takes on an almost existential quality. The final confrontation between Emma and her parents (a scene that packs an emotional wallop that could flatten a heavyweight boxer) drives home the play’s central theme: that ultimately, we are responsible for our own actions and our own recovery. In the end, People, Places & Things is less about addiction itself and more about the struggle to find authenticity in a world of artifice. It’s a play that will have you questioning your own perceptions of reality long after you’ve left the theatre. Is it a perfect production? Absolutely, as far as anything can be perfect. Just don’t expect a cozy night at the theatre. This is a play that will challenge you, provoke you, and quite possibly leave you in need of a stiff drink afterwards. (Though given the subject matter, perhaps a cup of herbal tea would be more appropriate.)