Visceral Experience of Addiction Rehab

“Your addiction . . . it’s a parasite and will fight for its own survival.” 


“Truth is difficult when you lie for a living.”

Emma an actress

Denise Gough as Emma (Photo: Marc Brenner)

As the play opens we are in the nineteenth century with actors in Victorian costume. Is this a play about addiction through the centuries starting with the Victorians’ penchant for laudanum? But no, the scene is from Chekhov’s The Seagull with the actress playing Nina (Denise Gough) at breaking point.

The gauze backdrop falls and we switch to a 21st century scene.  The music is deafening and tectonic, people are dancing.  Nina (Denise Gough) or Emma as she tells us is her real name, snorts a line of cocaine and is on the phone to her mother asking her to box up all the drugs, alcohol, prescription medicines and other substances in her flat. Emma is about to be admitted to the rehab unit to get clean. She is asked to hand over her laptop, phone and any electronic devices for ordering supplies while in rehab. A patient Paul (Kevin McMonagle) stripped to the waist with “The End” scrawled on his torso creates confusion in the reception area.

Emma, who says her name is Nina after hearing that complete honesty is called for, is asked what she might have consumed in the last 48 hours. She lists a large quantity of benzodiazepine which she says she was prescribed by four different general practitioners, alcohol, cannabis and several other substances. “How did you get here today Nina?” asks the member of staff Foster (Danny Kirrane). “I drove,” says Emma in a humorous moment.

The doctor (Sinead Cusack) then shocks us with a stool sample in a kidney shaped medical plastic container which she takes a bite out of. It’s her falafel lunch! The doctor takes a medical history from Emma and she refuses the prescription medicine offered to get her off the addiction forming drugs and alcohol.

Cast. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

The play then takes on a surreal dimension. We had a glimpse when Foster was seen in duplicate but are unprepared for the scene now in front if us. Emma has cloned with another six women — same size, same hair, same clothes — writhing and scratching and convulsing and gesticulating to emerge from her bed. The noise is deafening, the sound of a sub-machine gun, the lighting pulses cruelly and we know we are watching mental and physical chaos.

The Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous principles of the 12 Step programme are explained to Emma, as are the play’s title as the avoidance of People with whom you use drugs, the Places where you score and use and the Things that act as a trigger to use.

Emma is persuaded to join the group for group therapy which she resists. A recovering addict Mark (the empathetic Malachi Kirby) tells her, “We’re addicts because we are a toxic combination of low self esteem and grandiosity”. Through role play, the terrible stories start to emerge behind each patient’s history of addiction and they rehearse making amends. The damage to friends and family is itemized.  We realise that almost all the employees in the clinic are ex-addicts, people who have been through the programme and graduated receiving a small scroll.  

Duncan Macmillan’s script is very well written. Trauma is illustrated with urgent choreography in multiple persons, cacophony and lighting. The description of the sunken life of addiction is enriched with wit. They discuss the themes around the concept of the higher power in the context of the Steps.  There is no release at the interval as the deafening music continues throughout.  

Malachi Kirby as Mark, Denise Gough as Emma, Siinead Cusack as Therapist and Kevin McMonagle as Paul. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Bunny Christie’s set is white but desks and a hospital bed quietly rise and fall to change the physical setting. During breakdowns, psychedelic stripes are projected on the white walls.  There is an outstanding visual set arrival near the end of the play.

Artistic director of Headlong, Jeremy Herrin directs. When I look at the list of  Headlong productions, the plays are memorable, outstandingly good dramas, well directed with stellar performances.

The central performance from Denise Gough is one which is surely on its way to nominations for Best Actress when the spate of awards begins in a few months. Gough is amazing in the central role, conflicted, self-deluding and confident only in her own intelligence but self-destructive.

When we finally meet her with her family we can understand the source of her low self-esteem and also what damage she has done to her family. 

After seeing Emma’s rehearsal (she has now admitted her real name is Sarah but is it?)  for talking about making amends to her parents (Sinead Cusack and Kevin McMonagle), we can compare with her in the real situation with all the hurt and pain she put them through. We see how hard it is for her to leave her past behind and how little understanding there is outside the unit. Sinead Cusack plays the doctor and the therapist, both of whom remind Sarah of her own mother.

An optimistic after survey shows just one in four succeeding in remaining abstinent after residential rehab treatment.  This production has lost none of its power since I saw it at the National Theatre in September 2015.  

Cast (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Production Notes

People, Places & Things

Written by Duncan Macmillan

Directed by Jeremy Herrin



Denise Gough

Danny Kirrane

Dillon Scott-Lewis

Holly Atkins

Kevin McMonagle

Louise Templeton

Malachi Kirby

Paksie Vernon

Russell Anthony

Ryan Hutton

Sinéad Cusack

Ayọ̀ Owóyẹmi-Peters


Director:  Jeremy Herrin

Set Designer: Bunnie Christie

Costume Designer:  Christina Cunningham

Movement Director:  Polly Bennett

Lighting Designer: Paule Constable

Music:  Matthew Herbert

Sound Designer:  Tom Gibbons

Lighting Designer: James Farncombe

Video/projection Designer: Andrzej


An Original Production by the

National Theatre

and Headlong


Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes including an interval

Booking to 10th August 2024


The Trafalgar Theatre

14 Whitehall


London SW1A 2DY

Rail/Tube: Charing Cross

Telephone:  0844 871 7615



Tube: Leicester Square

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the

Trafalgar Theatre  on 17th May 2024