Good People, Hampstead Theatre, London – review

Britons tend to think that Americans hardly ever write about class, that to them it is not such a pervasive issue. Not as it is to us, certainly, but in many cases we simply don’t recognise the codes. Neighbourhood is a good one: it may say as much to an American that David Lindsay-Abaire’s play is set in South Boston (working-class, often rough and prideful) as it would to a Briton that it now receives its UK premiere at the Hampstead Theatre (Hampstead: prosperous, often complacent and, well, smooth). Add money (protagonist Margaret has just been fired from her job at the checkout of the dollar store) and ethnicity (in search of work she visits old flame Mike, who has made good from the old South Boston Irish cradle and whose wife, almost but not entirely coincidentally, is black) and this is, in effect, a play about waddling, swimming and quacking that never needs to use the word “duck”.

The title itself is partly code: Margaret refers to Mike as being “good people” in the sense that carries connotations of working-class solidarity. But it also questions whether either of them deserves their own self-evaluation, he because of his resistance to her importunings despite the possibility that he may be the father of her handicapped daughter, she for deploying so many passive-aggressive stratagems. (Watching the play will be a chastening experience for anyone with such tendencies.) The first half is by and large a prolonged set-up for the sustained scene after the interval between Margaret, Mike and his wife Kate. Lindsay-Abaire and director Jonathan Kent ratchet matters up skilfully, almost imperceptibly, so that we never notice the gears changing, only that matters are now more intense than a while ago.

In this their principal asset is Imelda Staunton as Margaret, who has been coming over as mouthy and avoid-y from the word go (in fact, so rapidly does she begin that she even pre-empts that word) but is also masterly at playing beats and pauses. She may still be speaking in the same tone, but Staunton conveys that Margaret is now a little bit more deflated, or a little bit more desperate and prepared to risk a dangerous gambit. Lloyd Owen is a firm foil to her as Mike, but this is Staunton’s show from beginning to end. A class act in every sense.

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