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.