Saturday, 19 April 2014

'Good People' at the Noel Coward Theatre

'Good People' is a new play put on at Hampstead Theatre which has transferred to the West End for a month or two at the Noel Coward Theatre. It's set in Boston and stars Imelda Staunton as Margie, the mother of a disabled daughter who is desperate to pay next month's rent on their small apartment.

It starts with Margie getting fired from her job at the tills at a dollar shop, and then, talking to a friend, she finds out that an old boyfriend is now a fancy doctor and she goes to his office to see if he has a job she could have. He doesn't have a job to offer but she wangles an invitation to a party at his house in the suburbs on the off-chance that one of his posh friends might have a job and that is where the problems really start.

It's an odd play in a sense, a small cast of six people telling a rather small story of a desperate woman needing to earn some money. On the other hand, that's probably the biggest story there is, the need to survive and keep a roof over your head and food on the table. Her life is work and going to bingo with her loud, opinionated friends and, compared to them, she comes across as the nice one. Being 'nice' is important to Margie and is played on later in the second half when she claims to be nice but the doctor's wife challenges that. And, strangely enough, in the last few lines of the play, it turns out she really is nice.

It's not all desperate and serious. There are some nice comedy moments thrown in to lighten the tension, such as Margie responding with 'How the fuck would I know' when asked if the wine is good since she's never tasted it before. And then there are the hideous bunnies one of her friends makes to sell for $5 each. But the centre of the play is class, ambition, the gap between rich and poor and the lack of choice forced on some people. We learn that the upper middle class doctor's life would have been very different if his father hadn't stopped him killing a black kid back in his teens. The now urbane doctor gradually frays at the edges until he almost attacks Margie in the heat of argument and we see that nothing really changes.

One of her friends suggests early in the play that she tells the good doctor that he fathered her disabled daughter in their summer romance before he left for college and medical school, something Margie doesn't want to do because it's not 'nice'. Later on she says exactly that and explains that she didn't say anything years ago because she didn't want to hold him back from escaping their poor neighbourhood. Then, in the heat of argument, she retracts it.

In almost the final lines of the play, back in the bingo hall when she finds that her boss at the dollar store has paid her rent from his own bingo winnings, we find out that her story is true and her friends have known all along.  Her life will go on living hand to mouth and have a very narrow focus of being trapped in her small neighbourhood but she's done the right thing in her own mind. She's still independent and still optimistic that she'll get another job. That's a powerful scene and confirms that Margie is, indeed, good people.

Imelda gives good Margie and Angel Coulby was good as the doctor's wife (yes, Guinevere from 'Merlin') but I'm less confident of Lloyd Owen as the doctor. It's an interesting play but I left puzzled that the producers had left it in its American setting when it could easily have been placed in any town in Britain. After all, we have enough pound shops of our own these days. 

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