It’s official: London has its first five star production of 2014* … and it’s a comedy. Good People at the Hampstead Theater had me guffawing and gasping nearly from the start straight through to its trim finish shortly before 10 PM. I was actually eager and excited to come back after the interval! When was the last time that happened!
I did my best to do no research whatsoever about this show before I went in, wanting to experience it completely raw – so I was very surprised to find out this show was a very modern play set in America (I finally deduced it to be Boston, a city where a really poor white, urban population is most decidedly in existence – Good Will Hunting twenty years later). The lead character is Margie (Imelda Staunton), a forties-ish mom taking care of a mentally handicapped daughter as best she can on a cashier’s income. Her friends – as long as cash is left out of the equations – are Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Dottie (June Watson), each with their own list of deadbeat relatives, whom they discuss over coffee and bingo. When Margaret finds out her old boyfriend Mike has moved back to town – and he’s now a doctor – we’re set up for a clash of titans, a veritable Look Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Abigail’s Party.
The clash between Margie and Dr. Mike is pretty colossal. People here in the UK are obsessed with class, but us Americans live in ignorance of it, because all that matters is money. And this play is about how you can “take the girl out of the trailer park but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl” as these two old friends from “Soufie” meet up across the giant gap that is their income divide. But what is even more wrenching seeing how much Dr Mike has failed to accept about his past … he’s fit into the rich culture he’s become a part of that there’s not a single person who really understands what he’s like under the skin. Except, really, Margie.
The careful depictions of how real people treat each other, showing off both their humanity and their selfishness, is what makes Good People both hysterically funny and nearly tearfully tragic. Poor people in America are working, are taking care of their kids, and are living one paycheck away from the streets. Some of them don’t make it; the discussion about Cookie, a woman who slides into homelessness after her husband leaves her, is just too telling in the way the poor woman accept that this is just something that happens.
Meanwhile we’ve got Dr Mike living it up in a world of fancy cheeses he can’t appreciate and a beautiful wife who’s assimilated far better into upper class American life as an African-American (she was, after all, born into it) than Mike ever will. He’s convinced that he’s earned it all: Margaret’s wretched life is, in his mind, because of her choices. The scene in which they argue this point … which had me on the edge of my chair … captures so much about why rich people in America … and let’s be honest, the UK … feel like they deserve what they’ve got and poor people got what they deserved.
At the end, I had laughed my head off but was holding back the tears because of an unexpected display of decency. I don’t want to say much more, but just trust me: this play was worth every penny I paid for the ticket, and if you’re lucky enough to get in, even for the top price of £32, you will consider both the money and the time well-spent. Oh, and if you don’t get in, might you consider a cash donation to a food bank? It’s what Good People should do.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on February 27th, 2014. It continues through April 5th.)
*I’m not counting Shakespeare. Shakespeare isn’t included anymore.