When People, Places and Things opened in the Dorfman at the National Theatre last year, critics immediately credited the show’s star, Denise Gough,  with performance of the year. Following widespread acclaim for her portrayal of troubled protagonist Emma, Gough went on to win Best Actress at the Critics’ Circle Awards, and now returns for the West End transfer of this Headlong and National Theatre co-production.
Duncan Macmillan’s play follows Emma’s journey from addiction, through rehab, and towards recovery. But it’s no simple tale of adversity; Emma is an actress – fiercely intelligent – and from her anguish bursts questions of truth, morality and the most terrifying thing of all: survival.
Gough is supported by Barbara Marten, Kevin McMonagle, and Nathaniel Martello-White alongside a number of supporting roles. Jeremy Herrin directs, with set by Bunny Christie, music by Matthew Herbert, and movement by Polly Bennett. Megan Vaughan rounds up the reviews.
People, Places and Things – a tiny neutron bomb
Gough’s star turn, once again, is headline news. Marianka Swain (ArtsDesk, 4 stars ), describes her as “fearless, unflinching and unforgettable”; Chris Bennion (Telegraph, 4 star s), as “a tiny neutron bomb”. Natasha Tripney (The Stage, 5 stars ) calls the performance “masterfully crafted – the weight she gives each line, each glance, each little twitch, each jut of the jaw, it all contributes to this complex portrait of a woman searching for herself.”
Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, 5 stars ) calls it “the greatest stage performance since Mark Rylance in Jerusalem” and she’s not the only one. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, 5 stars ) agrees, although he qualifies that further: “…it’s also the polar opposite of his larger-than-life turn. Emma is a self-invented woman trying desperately to be normal, to be honest.”
That mixture of mercuriality and restraint runs through many of the responses. “Crucially,” says Marianka Swain, “Gough fully earns our investment in her emotional journey, through trauma, grief and the day-by-day process of healing, by never openly courting it.” Mark Shenton too (LondonTheatre, 5 stars ) finds the light and shade in “acting so raw, so tangible, so felt, so passionate, so wounded yet alive, so down but never out”.
People, Places and Things – supporting roles
Perhaps inevitably for a story told through the eyes of such a magnetic protagonist, a few critics bemoan the lack of opportunity for supporting cast to shine. Swain feels they “don’t progress much beyond a quick summation”, while Bennion complains that “too many of Emma’s fellow patients speak in quasi-poetical terms about their own addiction – ‘I was a dog without an owner’, or, ‘I was a scream without a mouth’.
Nevertheless, there is acclaim for Nathaniel Martello-White as Mark, and Barbara Marten, who takes on the multiple roles of doctor, therapist and, at the very end of the play, Emma’s mother. Stephen Collins (Live Theatre UK, 5 stars ) celebrates her as this character especially: “Her silences are eloquent with tortured reflection, maternal inadequacy, steely resolution, cultivated detachment. Her scene with Emma, alone in the room where Emma spent her formative years, is sublime.”
People, Places and Things – an actor prepares
People, Places and Things is told through what Marianka Swain calls Emma’s “graphic subjectivity” (“We share her nightmarish hallucinations, watching in dawning horror as bricks fly out of the walls … and multiple Emmas appear from nowhere, writhing in shared agony”) while Natasha Tripney recognises a “succession of masks” as references from Ibsen, Williams and Shakespeare are adopted by Emma for group therapy.
Daisy Bowie-Sell (WhatsOnStage, 5 stars ) is one of several critics who links these elements directly with the theatrical world that Emma inhabits as an actress: “[She] is genuinely unsure of where reality begins and ends. It’s a little confusing, yes, but all this meta-theatre is less about messing with our heads and more about demonstrating just how chaotic Emma’s is.”
It is Maddy Costa (Exeunt ) who zooms out of the self-referential wormhole to take in the context of Wyndham’s auditorium: “At some level [the] play is a celebration of the power of theatre to articulate the most coruscating and excoriating truths of human existence. But none of this would necessarily speak directly to what it is to be the recipient of those truths without a key staging decision: that there are people, audience, in raked seating, on the stage. It’s a stroke of genius from director Jeremy Herrin and/or designer Bunny Christie, because as you watch the character who lives in theatre, you watch the audiences who live through theatre.”
People, Places and Things – an addict’s perception
The serious and widespread issue of addiction has given some critics an opportunity to draw on personal experience in their reviews. While Maddy Costa hints at the emotional conflict suffered by those who love addicts, Mark Shenton speaks openly about the play’s presentation of rehabilitation and recovery: ”For those of us who’ve experienced the redeeming and liberating honesty that comes from working the Twelve Steps for ourselves, it comes very close to home; but it’s also more than a mere public service announcement for the benefits of the programme. It shows how it is no easy ride but requires brave personal choices to see it through.”
Every critic who discusses addiction directly has praise for Macmillan’s treatment of its complexities. Summing things up simply, but with some feeling, is Mary Philpott (Cultural Capital ): “We never know how Emma’s story ends because, for addicts, it never does.”
But is it any good?
Undoubtedly yes, very. From the big hitters, The Stage, Evening Standard, WhatsOnStage and Time Out all award 5 stars, and there are countless more 4s and 5s. “There is absolutely no doubt,” writes Fiona Mountford, “that Gough is the person, Wyndham’s the place and this play the thing to see this spring.” It certainly looks like this transfer will secure Gough’s reputation and designate Macmillan’s play a contemporary classic.
We must recognise, however, that true consensus is never attainable, and no reviews round-up could be considered comprehensive without including the outliers. Chris Omaweng (LondonTheatre1, 1 star ) was so unimpressed by People, Places and Things that he spent much of the first half asleep, waking only to complain of “expletives left, right and centre” and compare the show unfavourably with Matthew Perry’s The End of Longing.