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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Hampstead


  Lorraine Ashbourne, Imelda Staunton and June Watson/ Ph: Johan Persson

Humor, regardless of the seriousness of the themes being explored, seems to come naturally to David Lindsay-Abaire, the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright whose wonderful 2011 play Good People is both funny and serious in equal proportions. It has been playing to packed houses at the Hampstead Theatre prior to taking up residence in the West End and, though it’s still early in the year, is sure to run away with several top awards – including Best Play.
The setting is South Boston (or Southie, as it’s called), a working-class neighbourhood populated largely by Irish Catholics with a strong sense of community and loyalty and to whom making ends meet would appear to be an overriding priority. One such person is Margie (Imelda Staunton), whom life has unfairly knocked about once too often. A single mother with a severely handicapped grown-up daughter, she’s in the process of being fired from her job as cashier in a down-market dollar store. Her boss Steve (Matthew Barker) has accused her of tardiness and late-coming.
Despite Margie’s extenuating circumstances, such as her daughter’s exhausting, all-consuming needs and an incessantly nagging foul-mouthed landlady (June Watson) forever banging on about the rent she is owed, Steve has no alternative but to sack her; it’s either his job or hers. With no money coming in and with the rent due, Margie is plunged into the kind of melodramatic situation redolent of many time-honoured heroines in distress so popular with audiences in the era of silent movies. Trouble is, there’s no handsome hero on the horizon to rescue her. Or maybe there is. 
In her teens Margie had a two-month fling with a Southie youth called Mike (Lloyd Owen), who, alone among the locals, managed to free himself from the shackles of his Southie background. Thirty years later he has returned to an affluent Boston suburb with a wife (Angel Coulby) and daughter in tow, as well as a successful practice as a fertility doctor. Margie, desperate for work, makes an appointment to see Mike hoping he’ll find something for her to do.
The consequences of the encounter – which results not in a job but an invitation to the imminent birthday bash Mike’s wife is throwing for him – comprises the gripping second half of the play in which author Lindsay-Abaire steers the plot in unpredictable directions while concentrating just as effectively on character development.
The themes of the play – notably the class divide and the notion that life’s a lottery (it’s no accident that Margie, her landlady and her best friend spend whatever leisure time they have in a Bingo hall) – are explored to great dramatic effect. The construction is well nigh flawless, the faults and virtues of the protagonists navigated with no didactic conclusions or moral judgments, and the dialogue witty without a hint of contrivance or artifice.
All the performances are spot on, too. Staunton, who, it would appear, can do no wrong, offers 50 shades of every color in the spectrum in her portrayal of a feisty, morally ambiguous woman trapped in a grey existence from which there is no escape. She’s not likeable, but your heart breaks for her just the same.
The rest of the cast is terrific, the sets by Hildegard Bechtler outstanding, and Jonathan Kent’s bold and nuanced direction superb. This is as good as it gets.


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