People, Places & Things at Trafalgar Theatre review: lightning strikes twice in this triumphant revival

Danny Kirrane and Denise Gough in People, Places & Things (Marc Brenner)
Danny Kirrane and Denise Gough in People, Places & Things (Marc Brenner)

Sometimes lightning strikes twice. In 2015 Denise Gough delivered a gutsy, star-making performance as fragmenting actress Emma in Duncan Macmillan’s piercing, witty and urgent play about addiction at the National Theatre.

Last night, Gough reunited with Macmillan and director Jeremy Herrin to recreate that thunderbolt in the newly restored Trafalgar Theatre.

I’ve rarely seen a show where script, production and star mesh so perfectly. Bursts of pumping techno express moments of chaos and abandon. Bunny Christie’s antiseptic rehab-centre set is a blank canvas for staticky video projection and sudden eruptions: it frames a bank of audience members on the stage behind, so we can all have a good, hard look at ourselves.

But it’s Gough’s navigation of a gamut of emotion, from withdrawal jitters to defensive truculence, disinhibition to raw vulnerability, that drives the evening. She’s magnificent.

We first see an intoxicated Emma lurch through a scene in Chekhov’s The Seagull, which morphs into a hedonistic club night, then the reception of a 12-step addiction clinic, where she snorts a last line of cocaine before reluctantly checking in. These dissolves between scenarios and states of mind are brilliantly done by Macmillan and Herrin.

Malachi Kirby, Denise Gough, Sinéad Cusack and Kevin McMonagle (Marc Brenner)
Malachi Kirby, Denise Gough, Sinéad Cusack and Kevin McMonagle (Marc Brenner)

Emma bristles against the conventions of group therapy, and the suggestion she should take responsibility for her actions but surrender to a higher power. “I really need you to be cleverer than this,” she taunts Sinead Cusack’s beady doctor, who in a nice running gag also plays her therapist and her mum.

Macmillan isn’t interested in easy moralising: he explores the brutal realities of addiction – violence, deceit, self-abasement, death – but empowers Emma to express the idea that substance abuse can be transporting, and a reasonable response to a “world that’s f***ed”. The script has been lightly tweaked to include references to “Ukraine, China, Trump”.

But Macmillan also constantly reminds us that Emma can’t be trusted, when talking about herself, her brother Mark’s death, or even her own name. In another adroit visual metaphor, a host of alternative Emmas periodically flood the stage.

Another Mark (Malachi Kirby, superb), a fellow patient, touches something in Emma that her doctor and therapist, and Danny Kirrane's beautifully empathetic orderly Foster, can’t reach.

Macmillan draws parallels between religion, acting and chemically altered states. I usually hate it when playwrights navel-gaze about theatre but the thinking here is sharp and compelling. Macmillan also mines wit from both brutal and mundane situations. I loved Kirby’s Mark mistaking Don Quixote with Wile E Coyote.

This revival is a triumph for Macmillan, for Herrin, but above all for Gough, who has revisited her greatest hit, not as a vanity project, but as a piece of unfinished business. And she absolutely smashes it out of the park.

Trafalgar Theatre, to August 10; book tickets here