Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s been a while since People, Places and Things last graced our stages: Duncan Macmillan’s drama originally debuted at the National Theatre back in 2015, winning rave reviews and earning Denise Gough an Olivier Award. Macmillan and Gough have reunited with director Jeremy Herrin to revive the play at London’s Trafalgar Theatre, which opened this week and is playing through to 10th August.

We’ll say this right away: it’s absolutely brilliant – rarely does theatre feel this important. An urgent consideration of rehab, we meet Gough playing the role of Emma, who has arrived at the clinic battling drug and alcohol addiction. She brilliantly navigates comedy and tragedy – in fact the play does as a whole – we laughed way more than we expected to at her deadpan putdowns and snarky comments, but there’s a serious side too: we witness a genuinely vulnerable side to her which we fully invested in.

It’s a play that’s unafraid to tackle huge issues: we see Emma railing against the 12-step rehabilitation process, making a case for her destructive lifestyle and arguing that it’s the only sensible coping mechanism for the pointlessness of our existence – and she sounds compelling. No topic is off the table, whether challenging religion, or deconstructing all of society’s systems – law, money, nothing is safe here – and the debates are framed so eloquently that we bought into what she was saying.

There are some really great meta moments, too – Denise Gough acknowledges that we all know she’s not who she is claiming to be while we are watching her performance, and that this whole evening only works because collectively we’ve agreed to believe something we know not to be true. Sometimes plays that explore the process of theatre making can fall into the trap of navel gazing but not so here: it’s truly gripping stuff, artfully told.

We could go on and on about People, Places and Things – there’s so much to rave about: the set design is brilliant, the lighting and the sound makes for a hugely absorbing experience, all of the acting is top notch. But we had two key takeaways as we left the theatre: first of all, that this is one of the best plays we’ve ever seen; and second, that it’s easy to see why Denise Gough won the Olivier Award for this role. This is theatre at its absolute best, and features a career-defining performance – pick up a ticket while you can.

GAY TIMES gives People, Places and Things – 5/5

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