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Review: Good People, Noel Coward Theatre

Posted on 16 April 2014 by Daniel Harrison

Good People

It would be possible for an audience to leave content enough with having experienced the fizzling layer of warmth and humour that pins together Good People. Yet dig a little deeper, and you find where the true power of the piece lies. This is a stinging critique of the concept of social mobility, a burningly intense study of a class system not discussed but very much present in the US, a play that cunningly partially disguises its exploration of equality and life-chances through zippy direction and cast, and excellent writing.

The American Dream seems to have left Margie behind. She is a blue-collar worker, out of a job, and the sole carer of disabled daughter Joyce. Life is difficult and unfair. Her old school boyfriend Mike is also from the rough side of Boston, yet he has managed to ‘escape’ his heritage, and is now a well-paid and well-respected doctor. Mike reluctantly invites Margie to a party he is throwing, only to cancel the bash. Margie believes the cancellation to be a lie, a ploy to ensure that he doesn’t embarrass him in front of his fellow professionals, and so decides to show up anyway. There was no party. At first, Mike’s wife Kate is happy to welcome Margie into her home, displaying an almost fetishism of all things working class, demanding stories and anecdotes from their rough backgrounds. It soon becomes clear that Mike has provided an edited account of his history to Kate, and home truths become very uncomfortable indeed.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s writing has a pressing and biting intelligence about it, laced with a devilish wit. The audience at the Noel Coward (and I would very much assume at the Hampstead before this deserved transfer) may well be firmly middle class, but all attention is on what it means to be working class in a society that chooses to ignore or avoid those most in need of help. “How’s the wine?”, Mike asks Margie after giving her a glass. “How the fuck should I know?” is her sharp response; for her, there are things in life a little more pressing. Mike, she believes, has become no more than ‘lace curtain’, that is, he is safe, pedestrian, and no longer a threat to the status quo that those living on the breadline are through merely existing. A current of tension sparks its way through the writing to make this point.

This is highly thoughtful writing, yes, but the performances are superb also. Imelda Staunton’s Margie is one of the most rounded portrayals of a character I have seen for a long time. She is boisterous and mischievous and warm, yet she uses these traits as a shield to hide her rawness, vulnerability and uncertainty. I wanted to run up on stage and hug her, and befriend her. She is utterly plausible, and with that, completely transfixing. Credit to the full cast however: I especially enjoyed Lorraine Ashbourne and Susan Brown’s bitter and bitchy scenes in the dusty old bingo hall, with Lloyd Owen and Angel Coulby providing strong turns as Mike and Kate in sterilised suburbia.

Good People is stunningly relevant. With food banks in this country at stretching point, and an inherent distrust existing around those that are forced to use them, Lindsay-Albaire’s work speaks as much about Britain as it does about its faded Boston setting. An examination of class, race, ethnicity and gender. The final scene is back in the bingo hall, with Margie desperate for some winnings for next month’s rent. Then: curtain. Heart-wrenching, tragic, engrossing.

Good People is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre until 14 June. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website.

Daniel Harrison

Daniel Harrison

A graduate of Theatre Studies, Daniel has worked in a number of different areas within theatre, most recently cutting his teeth with the Communications team at BAC. He is currently Project Assistant for the Young Vic's upcoming Schools Theatre Festival, and is a champion of the power of theatre as a force for good within society.

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Review: Blood and Gifts

Posted on 27 October 2010 by Tiffany Stoneman

I am definitely not one who is up to date with current political affairs or has a great understanding for that part of English culture – I know who’s currently in power, have a vague recognition of the differing parties, and realise how the political climate has shifted over the last decade or so. So when I was on my way to see J.T.Rogers’ new play Blood and Gifts set in the eighties, I was sure the plotline of Soviet invasion and selling weapons to Afghanistan would go right over my head.

However, this piece of political realism which combines outstanding acting with an innovative set design featuring multiple locations on moving platforms engaged me as an audience member and inspired me through its technical and performance skills. The lead role, taken on by British/Welsh actor Lloyd Owen, epitomized the American stereotype whilst not overdoing the hero-come-martyr effect of the text. Though the dramatic, emotional out-front pauses of James Warnock reminded me of corny American films, Owen was able to push the play forward, and his performance remained consistent so the audience could follow his journey through the tumult of historical events. Not once did I feel it right to place the blame on Owen’s character for the consequences of the story – throughout he remained sincere and the truest ‘do-gooder’ and it was this earnest approach that made the final dialogue with Abdullah (Demosthenes Chrysan) emotive and almost heart-wrenching.

Supporting Owen were Adam James, the bumbling, cynical Englishman Simon Craig; Philip Arditti playing Saeed whose impressive performance made the end revelation even more devastating; and Demosthenes Chyrsan whose relationship with Owen as Abdullah was at times a strange mix of endearing and sinister. Although it was a play that focused largely on the cultural stereotypes developed over the last thirty years, there was never a moment of commedia or gratuitous racism to express current views – at all points during the story the characters were expressed in a way that was relatable to even those completely oblivious to modern politics.

The design by Ultz was innovative and enhanced the text beautifully. Various sets moved forward and back on the stage on rolling platforms, cut off by sliding walls or windows. The transformation of the space from office to Afghan desert was phenomenal, whilst the moving lighting rig created a sense of claustrophobia in some of the more intense scenes that set off the characters’ dialogue in a very emotive way.

Though I must admit I would never normally have considered this a play to go and see, I’m very glad I went as it was informative both politically and in theatrical style. The actors worked well to portray the various relationships of the play that spanned around about a decade, and the design of set and lighting brought the text to cinematic life.

Blood and Gifts is playing at the National Theatre until 14th November, booking via the National’s website.

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