After completely messing up a production of Chekov’s Seagull, Emma the actress decides to go to rehab. She’s planning on staying until she gets better, so she can go back to working again. But it’s never that simple. People, Places and Things is a play not only about addiction, but also about the concept of reality, about progress, about huge mistakes and small victories. It’s not about Emma getting cured and moving on; it suggests that recovery isn’t a one-way ride, but rather an on-going process – a trying journey that requires strength, commitment and even faith.

It is difficult to talk about Headlong’s new production at the National Theatre without using superlatives. It is everything theatre should be: brutally honest, shockingly entertaining, and deeply moving. Bunny Christie’s majestic white tile set arches over director Jeremy Herrin’s world full of emotional escalations, trippy hallucinations and even hilarious moments. He handles Duncan Macmillan’s material with steadiness and sensitivity. Exceptionally impressive is the seemingly effortless transitions that transport us smoothly from scene to scene, making it feel almost like a dream or a high trip.

Macmillan’s script is triumphant. The blond-wigged copies of Emma show that this story is not about just one person’s recovery; the play’s themes are very much universal. The text feels natural, yet every word has an intention. The suspense is built up very carefully, and somehow Macmillan manages to target multiple issues without overcomplicating or overwriting his play. Drugs, theatre, family and God all have a place in here, and none of it feels rushed.

There are no weak links in the ensemble. They work together with a natural chemistry, portraying ordinary people who just want to get through it all. Nathaniel Martello-White brings both relief and tension to the play, and he succeeds at making us laugh just as well as making us cry. Barbara Marten is excellent as the doctor and the therapist, but it is when she portrays Emma’s mother that she gets to show her incredible range. Her stillness is just as captivating as her great comic timing.

But at the end of the day all eyes are on Denise Gough, who is, in every moment, electric. Her Emma isn’t just an actress with several addictions; in just two acts she embodies a fully fleshed out character who is intelligent, witty, flawed and fragile. We believe every move, even when she says that everything on stage is just pretend. Towards the end of Act I Emma says “if you’re really lucky, you get to be onstage and say things that are absolutely true, even if they’re made-up”. For Gough, this was definitely one of those roles.

Brilliant writing, powerhouse performances, exquisite design; this production shocks to the core and stays with you long after it’s over. Go watch People, Places and Things.

People, Places and Things is playing in the Dorfman Theatre at the National until 4 November. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo by National Theatre.