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A CurtainUp London Review
The play opens in the back lot behind an American equivalent of a Pound store in a run down neighbourhood, South Boston. It is instantly recognisable from Hildegard Bechtler's set that it is a rough area of town with peeling paint and an abandoned shopping trolley full of debris and discarded pizza boxes. Here Margie (Imelda Staunton) is getting the bad news. Due to her persistent lateness, caused by the woman who is paid to "watch" Margie's handicapped adult daughter herself being late, Margie is being sacked from her job as a cashier by store manager Stevie (Matthew Barker). She desperately tries to negotiate a stay of execution, offering to work for much less per hour as she thinks the decision is based on the manager being able to hire cheaper labour. She pulls more and more arguments out of her bag, each one nastier, ending with a jibe about Stevie's mother, a friend of Margie's.
This spiteful knee jerk jab is a characteristic of Margie when cornered. As we see several times in the play, she appears affable and good natured until she feels cornered and then the acid comment bounces out of her mouth and does more damage to her sorry situation. So although we can empathise with the unemployed carer of a handicapped child, we also see that at times Margie is her own worst enemy.
There is plenty of plot detail on the site, starting with Elyse Sommer's review, so I shall concentrate on the London production. Lloyd Owen is Dr Mike Dillon, the outwardly confident reproductive endocrinologist, who escaped from South Boston through education, to whom "Southie" Margie turns for help. We sense his detachment and awkwardness at not really greeting Margie as a long lost friend but more nuisance value as she asks him for a job and invites herself to his birthday party. It is touching that she remembers the exact day of his birthday.
Much of the first act sets up Margie's situation, whether in her flat with her friend Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) and her landlady Dottie (June Watson) or at the Bingo Hall when they hope for a win or in the doctor's office. But it is in the second act that the knot starts to tighten. This finds Margie in the affluent home of Mike and his wife Kate (Angel Coulby), much younger, black and very pretty. They two have some problems so what the playwright does here is to show us what troubles are apparent when there are no worries about money or employment or housing.
Imelda Staunton looks petite next to Lloyd Owen but every inch of her is determined "Southie", the girl he left behind in every sense although we also hear their affair was just a few weeks in high school. As she contrasts what her life has been like with Mike's golden career, she says, "I never had anyone watching from a window for me. You got lucky."
The meeting between Kate and Margie introduces a new situation for both women with Kate being friendly where her husband is cautious and edgy. It doesn't help that Margie can authenticate, or not, Mike's spun version of his deprived childhood. The repeating joke about Mike's being "lace curtain" Irish, an expression applied to the Kennedy clan, hits Mike where it hurts.
This Second Act, set in the middle class sitting room, is one of the most engaging, caustically funny and tragically hurtful pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time. The actors suspend disbelief and we find our allegiances shifting as we assess right and wrong, need and manipulation. Kate is the most sympathetic, sweetest character along with Stevie the store manager and they are the only people we can be sure live up to the play's title as Good People. The rest is ambiguous and discussion provoking.
A sell out at Hampstead, this play may be looking to move into the West End.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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