top of page

Review: People, Places & Things (Trafalgar Theatre)

Review by Daz Gale




We’re not even halfway through 2024 and it is already proving to be a stellar year for plays with some truly stunning productions dominating the West End over the past 5 months. However, the best may still be to come in the hotly anticipated West End return of People, Places & Things. One of those shows that everybody had talked about that I had unfortunately missed last time around – I wasn’t making that same mistake this time, but would I have the same response as theatre fans and critics alike from its previous run?


Written by Duncan Macmillan, People, Places & Things premiered at National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre in 2015, transferring to the West End the following year. It has since enjoyed a UK tour and a run in New York and now returns to London with its original star in tow. The story focuses on struggling actress Emma who finds herself in rehab, battling her addiction with drugs and alcohol. As she attempts to face her demons head on and overcome them, her ability to often stretch the truth threatens to compromise her recovery and continue to see her life spiral out of control.


It doesn’t take long to understand why this play was so well-received in its previous London runs - Duncan Macmillan’s writing is astonishing from start to finish. The first example of the quality of his writing is the speed in which the essential premise of the play is set up, less than one minute in as Emma’s world starts to unravel and we begin to realise what is happening. This quality never falters, creating an even and always excellent story that thrills and consumes you with every moment. The versatility in his writing style and careful balance of tone speaks volumes for what a talented writer he is with a serious and literally sobering story peppered with dark humour. The way People, Places & Things can elicit a huge belly laugh from you one moment to rip your heart out mere seconds later is unrivalled in its ability, with the humour never undermining the seriousness of the situation and the exposition with all of its nuances sensitively approached.


The use of theatre in itself plays a small part in the narrative of People, Places & Things with Emma cleverly referencing various shows (and a classic movie), reciting some classic quotes and even literally breaking the fourth wall in an ingenious moment early on. It is a lengthy conversation about the very art of theatre that provides a true highlight, with a line spoken by Emma about how much easier it is for her to pretend to be other people than her true self bringing new depths and parallels to the story, and resonating with me in a way that no other singular piece of dialogue ever has. The writing has also been revised slightly to reference events since the last time the play was staged, adding more of a poignancy and even more meaning to the events playing out.


Jeremy Herrin’s direction matches the impossibly high standard set by Macmillan’s writing, with clever attention to detail and unique touches, bringing the words and story to life with no shortage of creativity, helped with a gorgeous use of movement from Polly Bennett, particularly coming to life in Emma’s fantasy and nightmare sequences. With extremely contrasting scenes and the added challenge of an on-stage audience, the direction never falters, matching the tone and elevating the action further.

Bunny Christie’s imaginative and transformative set design is a joy to watch with all of its many tricks and secrets, right up until the very end, while Andrzej Goulding’s video design beautifully complements this, along with a great use of lighting from James Farncombe and sound from Tom Gibbons ensuring many of the scenes are as atmospheric as possible.


Having originated the role of Emma in 2015 and won an Olivier award for it, having Denise Gough return to the production provides an extra level of excitement. At times I have seen shows and commented on how a certain actor will win an Olivier for their performance, so to see one that has already been deemed that incredible sets expectations sky-high. Within the first minute, I could clearly see why Gough won that award, and that barely scratched the surface of the two hours that was to follow. 

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that in Denise Gough’s portrayal of Emma, I witnessed one of the singular best performances of my life, both as a reviewer and an avid theatregoer. What she does on that stage is nothing short of spectacular in an exhausting and demanding performance that sees her tap in to the very depths of darkness as she portrays addiction, recovery and relapse with such a duty of care and authenticity, it really showcases what acting can accomplish at its very best. At times loud and others understated, Gough leaves it all on the stage in a performance where, to quote the long-running show that just wrapped up its run at the same theatre, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, even when another character was speaking. Denise Gough may have delivered one of the all-time great performances and one I would encourage everybody to see if they are able to.


While Gough forms the centre of the show, her fellow cast members more than impress in their own roles. Malachi Kirby is sensational as Mark in a performance that grows as Emma lets him in more, with one key speech towards the end of the first act flawlessly performed and a highlight of the show. Sinead Cusack and Kevin McMonagle shine in multiple roles, but it is one particular scene they play together as the show nears its climax that showcases their talents substantially in a sequence that had my heart racing.

People, Places & Things is a pretty perfect thing in itself. Deeply affecting and powerful, all of the production elements tie together beautifully but it is the marriage between Macmillan’s writing and Gough’s performance that takes this to a level few shows ever manage to reach. It isn’t hyperbole when I say this is theatre at its very best. I always say theatre at its best has the ability to make you feel and boy, did I have no shortage of feelings, needing to escape for air in the interval due to how overwhelming the subject matter and execution of it was. I think I went through every emotion possible in a true feat of what theatre is capable of and what it should be.

Absolutely outstanding on every front, People, Places & Things really is unmissable theatre. We may still have half of the year left to come but I would be surprised if anything could top this as the best play of the year. I’d go as far as to say it is one of the best plays I have ever seen. See it for yourself and prepare for an experience like no other.

People, Places & Things plays at Trafalgar Theatre for a strictly limited run until 10th August. Tickets available here

Photos by Marc Brenner



bottom of page