'People, Places & Things' review — Denise Gough's performance is nothing short of extraordinary

Read our five-star review of Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things, now in performances at the Trafalgar Theatre until 10 August.

Olivia Rook
Olivia Rook

There are some roles so inextricably tied to performers that it can be hard to know where the character begins and the actor ends. Mark Rylance proved this with his acclaimed performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jerusalem, as did Glenn Close with her turn as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. One of the best examples, however, is Denise Gough’s drug addict Emma in Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things, a role she is reprising at London’s Trafalgar Theatre in a stage return that is nothing short of extraordinary.

She first performed the role at the National Theatre in 2015, which was soon followed by a West End run at Wyndham’s Theatre in 2016 and an Off-Broadway transfer in 2017. Seeing Gough’s deliciously complex performance once again in the West End is a real treat.

Emma is an actress and addict who hides behind her talent for lies and deception to avoid facing up to the real work of recovery. Checking into rehab after she breaks down part-way through a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull, she conceals her identity from the people trying to help her, as well as from us, the audience. Gough never lets us get close enough to the truth — even in Macmillan and director Jeremy Herrin’s perfectly constructed denouement, we are reminded of how easy it is to be fooled — yet the magic of her performance is that Emma still feels completely real and human.

Denise Gough People, Places & Things 1200 LT credit Marc Brenner -459 (1)

Gough nails every part of the addict’s journey, from Emma’s intoxicated slurs as she strains to form words in a torturous (but very funny) phone call with her mother, to the shattering process of withdrawal, brought to life by movement director Polly Bennett and Tom Gibbons’s deafening soundscape. The physical theatre draws on nightmarish visions that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film, with not one but six Emmas crawling out of walls like cockroaches and filling the stage with frantic energy.

Gough is supported by a strong, new ensemble cast. Sinéad Cusack multi-roles effectively as doctor, therapist, and mother, bringing a particularly unsettling coldness to the latter, while Malachi Kirby’s fellow in-patient Mark helps to cut through Emma’s lies. There’s also a lovely tender moment between Gough and Danny Kirrane, as Foster — one of the facility’s support staff — shares photographs of his abused but adored mongrel Eleanor. The parallel between humans and animals is hard to miss.

Holly Atkins as Charlotte, Dillon Scott-Lewis as T and Sinéad Cusack as Therapist in People, Places & Things 1200 LT credit Marc Brenner -805

The group therapy sessions feel protracted, however, as the play churns through the stories of Shaun, Laura, T, Charlotte, Jodi, and Mark, with the backstories of some being more fleshed out and absorbing than others.

Most elements of this encore run are unchanged, including Bunny Christie’s clinical, white-tiled set and James Farncombe’s strobe lighting design, which transports the audience into Emma’s drug-induced frenzy. Sections of text have been updated to drive home some of the horrors of society in 2024, from “Ukraine, China, Trump” to “The constant news alerts, the opinions about everything. Pictures of dead children, which are pictures of dead children next to adverts for skincare.” But what remains clear is that Gough’s titanic performance is still the beating heart of this play. A seven-year break from the part has dulled none of her wonderfully sharp edges.

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Photo credit: Denise Gough in People, Places & Things. (Photos by Marc Brenner)

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