“People, Places & Things” at Trafalgar Theatre 

Franco Milazzo in the West End
17 May 2024

In her first scene, Denise Gough’s aspiring actress Emma loudly declares “I am not a seagull!” as she stumbles drunkenly through a pub-theatre revival of Chekhov’s famous work. Through a fascinating journey, we discover who (and what) Emma really is and how she arrived in this sorry state. 

Denise Gough and Sinéad Cusack.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


People, Places & Things is a story of addiction that London seems to find hard to let go. After premiering at the National Theatre in 2015, followed by a West End run the next year, it transferred to New York. Now it returns for a third outing in the capital, again with Gough – who won an Olivier Award in the original production – in the lead role.  

Writer Duncan Macmillan and director Jeremy Herrin work a strange kind of alchemy over the audience, pulling us into a life lived through drugs, booze, and everything else Emma can get her hands on to escape reality. She stumbles through a shambles of a career and (almost inevitably) ends up at the reception desk of a rehab centre run by an addict and therapist played by Sinéad Cusack.  

It is an environment rich in dramatic possibilities and, within the pale white walls of Bunny Christie’s malleable stage design, we watch as Emma wages a one-woman war on the 12-step programme. She has no interest in recognizing a higher power over her or facing her demons, resists the urge to join the mandatory group sessions, and, when she does, fabricates her life based on works like Hedda Gabler. As a rebuttal of modern addiction therapies, it is only half-hearted: Emma eventually succumbs and falls into line, finally facing her own inner demons. 


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Herrin keeps up a ferocious pace through the first third, replacing the initial rush with a satisfying high as we get to know Emma and her fellow addicts better. Cusack is a solid presence throughout especially in her scenes opposite Gough; their rambunctious tête-à-têtes see them both fight their corners with intelligence and instinct. Malachi Kirby’s Mark is a soothing companion to Emma showing her the path to recovery through his own struggles and encouraging her to open up to the others.  

Whereas the first half of People, Places & Things puts us on cloud nine with its intoxicating combination of witty script and devil-may-care directing, the second half brings us down to earth. Seeing Emma leave rehab then return to her family home exposes a crass morass of clichés. In a room filled with childhood memories, she attempts the usual apologies proffered by recovering addicts to those they have hurt. Her father (Kevin McMonagle) buries his hurt feeling deep until pushed too far then her mother (also played by Cusack) moves in for the kill with some home truths. If Macmillan was attempting to show us what a downbeat amateur pub-theatre play can feel like then he succeeds in spades. From its running start which sets the stage on fire, this play finishes by stirring through the embers. 

Ultimately, the ending leaves what we have seen open to interpretation. Emma is not a seagull. Even the bird in Chekhov’s The Seagull is not a seagull but was given that name after a mistranslation. There is no soulful redemption in People, Places & Things but, in its place, a more realistic notion that recovery is an ongoing lifelong battle.