Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, Hampstead Theatre – review by Carole Woddis.

Class is not something Americans like to own up to very often.  At least not the kind of definition of class we tend to associate it with here in the UK.

Yet it’s there right enough in every interchange, if passed off as being differentiated by money rather than accent.

Accent gives it away immediately in England for all the attempts by old Etonians to come across as one step away from estuary English.

So it’s unusual, not to say rare to find an American playwright dicing with class issues.  Bruce Norris rattled a few cages with Clybourne Park (Royal Court) a couple of years ago though to tell truth, his focus was aimed more at issues of colour than class.

Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire – a Pulitzer prize-winner (Rabbit Hole), screenwriter and lyricist (Shrek the Musical) –picked up a shed load of awards in the US and became the most produced play of 2012-13.

How does it travel? American drama often has a way of getting stuck somewhere mid-Atlantic.  To be honest, Good People is one of those that seems not to have quite made the distance.  Put it down to Hampstead’s slightly off-putting acoustics – if you’re sitting one side, you can miss dialogue directed at the other.  Or accents and references that don’t quite hit home.  And this despite the indubitably galvanising presence of a national treasure, one Imelda Staunton whose role of Margaret carries more resemblance to a small, wiry British terrier than the nasally inclined unemployed supermarket check-out worker from Boston’s unfashionable southside, affectionately known to its residents as Southie.

Lindsay-Abaire who `got out’ from his working class, blue collar roots, to his credit has returned to pay honour to the good folk he grew up with and who were left behind, endowing them with the kind of robust comic truthfulness you might find today in the plays of Richard Bean or in in past times, Andrea Dunbar, Pam Gems or Nell Dunn’s Steaming.  Good folk;  for all their poverty-stricken lives a kind of survivalist resilience resides.  Ask any Corrie or EastEnders addict.  Same over here.

As Margaret’s close female pals, Jean and Dottie, Lorraine Ashbourne and June Watson make a splendid, often foul-mouthed pair of friends whose heart may be on the side of the angels but whose economic pragmatism does not bar Dottie from being prepared to throw Margaret out when her rent is not forthcoming – and this despite being the neighbour prepared to look after Margaret’s `special needs’ adult daughter.

Small scale and domestic as the play is, and inconsequential as the dialogue seems alarmingly prone to, still Lindsay-Abaire tackles some uncomfortable truths about life’s choices and limitations with some dignity, humour and eventually bite.

If it fails to carry the depth and narrative churn of most British drama, conflict and character clash do eventually burst out towards the end in a pitched battle cuttingly rendered by Margaret and a former love, Lloyd Owen’s Mike who escaped (into medicine) and intended to throw into question Margaret’s `goodheartedness’.

I wasn’t entirely convinced either by Lindsay-Abaire’s intent or his expression of it.

Much more plausible – and heart-warming – was the final scene, a return to the beloved Bingo enjoyed by Margaret and her friends and a gesture of generosity on the part of Margaret’s former employer (who sacked her) that poignantly symbolised Southie’s close-knit community bonds.

Jonathan Kent typically gives the play dynamic visual flair.  And I’d love to see how George Osborne or Iain Duncan-Smith might respond to it.  They might learn a thing or two.  Then again, probably not.  “The `undeserving poor’.  Huh.  Special pleading.  Huh.”

Good People runs at Hampstead Theatre to April 5, 2014.

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Carole Woddis © March 2014.