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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Good People
Hampstead and Noel Coward Theatres   Spring 2014

David Lindsay-Abaire's multiple award-winner, one of the most frequently produced plays across America last year, is about a subject most Americans, if polled, would say doesn't exist in that country class.

It is frequently very funny, frequently very harrowing, always thought-provoking and never boring. In its dramatic questioning of some of America's basic assumptions about itself it bears comparison to Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park and even Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman. 

The play is set in South Boston, one of those working-class (here Irish) neighbourhoods in which most people have jobs but few have prospects, where the probability of living your entire life within a half-mile of your childhood home is much greater than the likelihood of going to university or even moving away. 

Margaret is a forty-something single mother who loses her very menial job at the start of the play and finds herself on the edge of homelessness. The reappearance on the scene of Mike, an old boyfriend and the only one of her generation to get out, get an education and become (by her standards) rich leads her to call on him, out of the desperate faith that anybody successful might be able to find her a job.

But seeing the trappings of his success brings out a bitterness that surprises even her, envy growing into resentment at what she can only see as a basic unfairness, and she finds herself trying to bring him down. 

Did Mike succeed, as he believes, because he was more talented, more able and more determined than the others, and does that imply that their failure is their own fault? Or, as Margaret needs to believe, was he just uniquely lucky, with a string of small things going his way when any one of them could just as easily have sucked him back down? 

Does that mantra of the American Dream, that any boy (or girl) can grow up to be President, mean that those who don't can only blame themselves? Or is it all just a giant crap shoot, with the odds stacked against the poor, so there's really not much point in playing?

Like any dramatist worth his salt, David Lindsay-Abaire never asks those broader questions out loud, but anchors his play in the specific fact of one desperate woman's need to survive and make sense of her own life. (You can see why the play raises thoughts of Death Of A Salesman.) 

Playing a woman who can go in an instant from salt-of-the-earth funny to pathetically desperate to vindictively nasty, Imelda Staunton invests Margaret with a solid earth-bound humanity, and with the actress's own considerable charm and comic instinct, so that even when the character goes too far, she always retains or regains our sympathy.

Lloyd Owen shows us the strength of the man who was able to get out and succeed while also hinting at his gnawing suspicion that he didn't do it all on his own and may not really deserve it. 

Angel Coulby gives his wife the knowledge that all is not perfect in their comfortable world or their marriage, but the conviction that her determination to hang on to it makes her deserve it. 

Matthew Barker, June Watson and Lorraine Ashbourne, as Margaret's friends and neighbours, help create a sense of South Boston as a real place inhabited by real people, and of course director Jonathan Kent must share the credit for all their achievements. 

Good People may well be the best play of the year that has barely begun, and Imelda Staunton's the best single performance.

Gerald Berkowitz

Review - Good People - Hampstead Theatre 2014

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