CLASS, RACE, LUCK AND LIES: AMERICAN AND UNIVERSAL
In tough South Boston they approvingly say someone is “Good People”. It carries a sense not only of individual value but neighbourhood repute: decent family, not hoodlums. Another expression (used once of the uppity Kennedys) is “lace-curtain Irish”. Upward mobility can happen, with effort and luck, but as in any country not least here, it does need both. Not for nothing is our heroine’s only recreation the bingo table, twice staged: small chances change a life. Missing school, a disabled baby, an uninsured toothache turning bad so you miss work and get sacked and behind with the rent – and the next stop is the pavement. Whereas given a good brain, a father who gets you out of trouble and a community homework club, and you might make it to college, upward marriage and middle-class prosperity.
Mike (Lloyd Owen) got out and is now a smart fertility doctor. Margie, his high-school girlfriend, didn’t. As we first meet her, against Hildegard Bechtler’s startlingly realistic back-lot set, she is a tiny middle-aged firecracker mouthily resisting the sack from the Dollar Store checkout , deploying a mixture of rage, humour and desperation which summons us irrevocably to her side. For it’s Imelda Staunton, in one of her finest performances.
Among her friends – an irresistible June Watson as Dottie the landlady with a sideline in appalling craft novelty rabbits, and Lorraine Ashbourne with a fine slaggy grumpiness – Margie is a pillar of sensible decency. When her hope for a job takes her to the doctor’s smart office and then his living-room, she is combatively, humorously and at last furiously out of place. “I wouldn’t fit in here…I’m not fancy enough”. In a week when a British government adviser urged poor kids to learn ease in middle-class environments, it strikes home. And so in reverse (and in Hampstead!) does Mike’s discomfort at her view that he has gone lace-curtain and forgotten his roots. He has certainly edited them: once Margie discomfitingly reminisces with his curious graduate wife, it turns out that selective memory has made his family life tougher and himself holier.
The author, a Pulitzer winner, says his fellow-American playwrights don’t “tackle class the way Brits do”. But I can’t think of any recent British work treating it with as much honesty, energy, humour and perceptiveness as David Lindsay-Abaire, himself a scholarship boy from a “Southie” childhood. Directed by Jonathan Kent, this is neither bleeding-heart patronizing nor mired in despair. The awkwardness, defiance, and shifting power play between Margie, Mike, and his wife – Angel Coulby, tousled and friendly in palazzo pants – makes the play’s two hours zing, eliciting from us “Ouch!-es” “Aaahs” and rueful “Oh yes…” moments.
Passages in the second act are reminiscent of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park in their mischievous use of social shock – about race, sex, poverty and lies. As Margie torments Mike (Lloyd Owen) sometimes deservedly, sometimes not, he writhes and withers and finally turns nasty.
There are some fine jokes: about the middle-class word “comfortable”, the cheeseboard (“Creamy-dippy, body odour, or mouldy basement?”)And as the temperature rises, an elegantly crafted series of twists and revelations. It deserves a transfer, and Imelda Staunton another Olivier.
Box office 020 7722 9301 www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 5 April