People, Places & Things – Trafalgar Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Duncan Macmillan

Director: Jeremy Herrin

For many, addiction is an escape, a retreat from a world that is out of control into one that may be chaotic but is at least in the hands of the addict. For Denise Gough’s Emma, an actor who checks herself into a rehab centre, neither world is safe for her.

Duncan Macmillan’s play People, Places & Things, returning to the West End with its Olivier-winning star after first premiering at the National Theatre in 2015, documents Emma’s struggle as she rejects the group therapy sessions upon which the rehab centre’s treatment is based.

But the more Emma pushes, the more she reveals. The question is, how much of it we can believe? In the play’s prologue, we see Emma breaking down during a performance of The Seagull, causing her to check in to the clinic under the name “Nina”. In group therapy, she tells a story of her life that empathetic fellow patient Mark (Malachi Kirby) immediately recognises as having been cribbed from Ibsen.

Her refusal to open up and accept the clinic’s working methods (a “religiously neutral” adaptation of Alcoholics Anonymous’s twelve-step program) causes the majority of the tensions in Act I. Sinéad Cusack, playing the dual roles of Emma’s rigid doctor and a looser, more sympathetic therapist, affords Emma the patience she needs with a warmth that makes the protagonist’s rejection harder to bear.

While a montage of group therapy sessions could perhaps show some variety in the work involved – each clip uses the same setup, of a rehearsal that each resident needs to have with someone important to them – matters are always compelling, helped by Gough’s immense magnetism and the contrasts with Kirby’s chilled aesthetic. Throughout the process, we retain sympathy for Emma despite her disruptive behaviour.

After a time jump, Act II sees Emma return to the facility, a little more ready to accept the things she cannot change and have the courage to change the things she can. Like Nina in The Seagull, she is a little older and wiser, but still as vulnerable as ever. After practising her own difficult conversation in group therapy, we see the same situation play out in life, with Cusack in a third role as Emma’s mother. It’s a devastating sequence that resolves and explains – but never tries to justify – many of the lies, half-truths and evasions that Macmillan and Gough have laid before us in the preceding hours.

It concludes a searing, frequently funny, deeply empathetic exploration of addiction treatment. People, Places & Things may be approaching its tenth anniversary, but it feels as fresh and urgent as a brand-new work.

Continues until 10 August 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Empathetic addiction tale

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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