Review: Cost of Living, Hampstead Theatre

A beautiful performance by four exceptional actors that feels too subtle and slow-paced to really pack a punch.

Before the play, audience members are given a programme full of statistics and facts about poverty and human rights in America. Shocking numbers like “1.5 million people were destitute in 2017” are clearly pointed out to you and opinions on healthcare in America are made blatant. But very little of this actually comes through in the play. Instead a small flavour of poverty and class is seen in the hierarchy of the characters that feels obvious and doesn’t say anything more than ‘look at the difference of wealth in these two scenarios’. In this, it also points out what it’s like living with a disability. Katy Sullivan has both legs amputated (in real life as well) and is fully paralysed from the chest up (only as her character Ani). Then Jack Hunter brilliantly represents someone in a wheelchair, but from a much wealthier background, so he appears to live a much happier life with his private nurse. But little happens in the story as it plods along, quietly observing these people’s lives. This ends up feeling tiring and the lack of action left me wanting more.

Adrian Lester opens the play with a superb monologue as to why he has found himself in a bar on a Friday night after losing his wife some months previously. He captivates the audience with such a charm as he easily retells a heartbreaking story. This is done with wit and an ease that makes it hard not to feel completely absorbed by everything he is saying. Throughout the play, he continues with a stunning performance that makes his character so vulnerable yet extremely loveable.

Both Lester and Sullivan have developed an established relationship on stage that is utterly convincing and intriguing to watch. Sullivan acts well as the moody and depressed character of Ani. My favourite moment between these two is when Lester plays piano on Sullivan’s arm; both perform this scene with an innocence that is beautiful to watch.

Cost of Living plays around with the aspect of time from scene to scene, meaning you leave the theatre with an interchangeable idea about the plot. It takes you into a window of these four people’s lives, two who are disabled while the other two have the role of looking after them, whether it’s through a job or family obligation. These interactions between carer and patient start tense and cold, but as you continue to watch, they unfold into intricate relationships that reveal multi-faceted human behaviour. This is fascinating to watch, but not captivating enough to hold the whole play.

The set by Michael Pavelka and lighting by Matt Haskins is executed exceptionally, with fully working rain, snow and showers on stage which makes the naturalistic style very accurate and pleasing to see. The music delightfully complements the play and adds a peaceful brilliance to the subdued story.

Martyn’s Majok’s writing is poetic at times, especially in the opening monologue. However in other moments, it feels clunky and uneven, meaning it doesn’t quite feel natural enough for the down to earth play they are encompassing.

Hunter does a brilliant job of playing an arrogant young boy with a lot of money and therefore power. He performs the whole play from his wheelchair and never slips up in his convincing imitation of a disabled boy. Hunter interacts sublimely with Emily Barber who plays a hard working young woman on the brisk of poverty. Barber is hearty and strong while playing Jess and gives the audience the many layers and emotions of her character throughout the evening. Like her fellow actors, she hits this naturalistic style on the head and feels completely convincing throughout the play.

Overall, Cost of Living showcases a fantastic set of actors, but the story and message of the play leaves something missing for me and I wish the scenes hadn’t felt so slow.

Cost of Living is playing at The Hampstead Theatre until 9th March 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website.