GOOD PEOPLE AT THE NOEL COWARD THEATRE, LONDON
Theatre Run: Runs until Saturday 14 June 2014
Performance Reviewed: Thursday 05 June 2014
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
Good People is ostensibly a show about class. Or rather peoples relationship with class and the social, financial and even emotional barriers it places upon oneself. Do we allow ourselves to be both defined and confined by our roots and upbringing, or is the idea of any choice in the matter a fickle illusion orchestrated by a mixture of luck and lifes happenstance? It’s a concept that is far from new to theatre, but in this, David Lindsey-Abaire’s Boston-set drama, it is given fresh life and perspective by dint of being filtered through the American psyche and in the form of two flawed, interesting, contradictory yet strangely complementary lead roles beautifully performed by Imelda Staunton and Lloyd Owen.
Staunton plays Margeret, or ‘Margie’, whom we first meet down on her luck, pleading to not be let go from her cashier job due to a combination of her age and having a disabled daughter hurting her chances of any other employment. She’s brass but spritely, stubborn but generally well-meaning, and as is the credo for all characters in Good People, a delicate handling of both the good and the bad, the yin bickering with the yang. She’s ‘Southie’ through and through, proud and demonstrative of humble roots, rough round the edges but bursting with vim and character. The struggling single mother writ large, her only moral support comes from best friend Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) and somewhat self-serving neighbour-cum-landlady Dottie (Susan Brown), with occasional respite coming from the odd, mostly-fruitless trip to the bingo hall.
Into Margie’s seemingly hopeless circumstance comes former flame Mike Dillon, whom she hears is making good for himself since returning to the Boston area having become a doctor. Rent due and jobless, and with a little egging on from Ashbourne’s fabulously brassy Jean, Margie re-acquaints herself with her ex in the hopes of him being able to offer, or at least help orchestrate, a job of some sorts. He has, as Margie points out, always been ‘good people’. When this fails, she practically invites herself to his weekend birthday celebration in the hopes of siphoning some employment from amongst his well-connected friends and colleagues.
The first acts busy set-up and character work make way for a far more focused second, where a prolonged sequence set at Mark’s fancy ‘Chestnut Hill’ home sees the show, and it’s cast, really come alive. The initial plot drive of a struggling woman pitted against all manner of hardships remains intact, but comfortably makes room for a much more interesting rumination and exploration on class and social divide, and it’s a deliciously even-handed contrast between the characters of Margie and ‘lace curtain’ Mark. How responsible are we for our own standing and progress in life? How easy is it to shed off our former lives and constraints and make something of ourselves? Are repeat failures born of our own shortcomings and attitudes? Naturally, Margie and Mark do not see eye to eye here.
And, whilst this may all convey images of characters politically or philosophically waxing lyrical, it is instead conveyed brilliantly through the witty, biting and at times even hilarious interplay between the characters, who as mentioned are engagingly balanced and rounded. Mark is clearly a dedicated, hard-working and aspirational man whose successes are founded, yet Lloyd Owen imbibes him with a passive aggressive streak that at times threatens to dip into something a trifle darker and borderline ruthless as Margie’s presence and revelations begin to wear thin. Of course, not helping this is the fact that his marriage to Angel Coulby’s Kate is not quite the idyll expected or that he attempts to paint out (they’re going through marriage counseling, of course).
But for all of Mark’s secrecy and pride, Margie too demonstrates an obsessiveness and ruthlessness of her own, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge any personal fault for her circumstances and a spitefulness in so casually dredging up secrets and scandal from Mark’s past, including a real doozy about daughter Joyce’s parentage. Still, she’s so fiery and spirited, and Staunton’s performance so winning, that it’s impossible not to root for her. And amongst it all, Coulby does a terrific job of keeping the bemused Kate understandably inquisitive and just the right side of embittered.
It’s all cracking, and indeed crackling, theatre, and is really buoyed by the brilliant writing, direction and performances that continually chart an engaging blend of pathos, sincerity, drama and plenty of humour. Yes, Good People is deceptively funny, be it with some of the hilariously awkward, fish-out-of-water moments Margie in the Dillon household (‘how the f**k should I know’, she sardonically quips when asked if the wine is good) or just the generally solid character work and dynamics, with the odd dash of observational comedy thrown in for good measure - surely the young male store manager who keeps going to bingo must be gay?
Of course, front and centre and carrying the play with an extraordinary central performance is Imelda Staunton, surely the Nations’ most gifted character actress. With incredible sincerity she taps into the nervy, sassy fire of Margie whilst continually offering a character who is clearly wounded, needy and one misfortune’s step away from desperation. A faultless accent and Staunton’s innate comic timing being equally on-point, it is a towering turn that further cements this carefully observed and impressively crafted show as a real must-see and Staunton as an actress of nigh-incomparable conviction and talent.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
+ Stunning central performance from Imelda Staunton
+ Sterling support from Owen, Coulby and Ashbourne
+ Sharply written, keenly observed take on class and social divide
+ Terrifically nuanced character work
+ Plenty of levity and comedy throughout
+ Ends perfectly
GOOD PEOPLE is running at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, until Saturday 14 June 2014.
Alternatively, call the Box Office directly on 0844 482 5141 now to book your tickets!
Press tickets for this performance of Good People were provided courtesy of the Corner Shop. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.