Following a rapturous run on Broadway, picking up multiple awards including Best Actress for Frances McDormand and a Best Play nomination at the Tonys, Good People has its UK première at the Hampstead Theatre. It's a safe bet: during the 2012-13 season it was the most produced play in America.
Jonathan Kent directs a strong cast led by Imelda Staunton, here on outstanding form. Staunton plays Margaret, a middle-aged woman born and raised in South Boston, caring for her disabled daughter and trying to make ends meet. In the opening scene we see her lose her job at a dollar store – discovering her old flame Mike is back in town, she seeks him out for a new opportunity. From the very start Staunton is on fire – crackling with wit and emblazoned with a combative energy. She commands the space effortlessly, growing in stature, always seemingly one step ahead of anyone else. Embodying the toughness of the traditional South Boston woman, who unlike her friends has resisted the pitfalls of anger and bitterness, she retains a firm lid on Margaret's self-doubt. The story really picks up in a scene at the doctor's office where she seeks employment from Mike, exploring themes of identity, class and the importance of the characters' roots. We learn that the 'good people' of the title here are from decent stock, unpretentious while maintaining a sense of community and family.
Good People is set in Boston, but could be anywhere in the world – so universal are the ideas proffered by David Lindsay-Abaire. And here the play is unapologetically personal, too: Lindsay-Abaire grew up in South Boston, winning a scholarship to attend a private school of which, in this world, Mike is a patron. Each day he would walk past the dilapidated buildings, crossing town to be educated in perversely palatial surroundings. His feelings of alienation at this time have clearly helped to create the compelling arguments of both Margaret and Mike in this, their first meeting in many years. It also enriches the exploration of rich vs poor and the class system – a widely uncommon theme in American plays. Lindsay-Abaire's script is packed full of knockout lines, sharpened by Bostonian edginess and delivered with a zinging, acerbic humour. The bingo scene in particular is a winner, with Margaret's friends Dotte (June Watson) and Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) treading the line between resentment and encouragement to appease the self-doubt that Margaret exposes. Watson and Ashbourne are superb as these hard, sour women.
Staunton is wonderfully supported by Lloyd Owen, who delivers a tremendous performance as Mike: the boy who grew up in the South Boston sticks before making good and becoming a doctor. He terrifically captures the unease of being reminded of his past by Margaret, who dissects his desire to keep a distance from his lacklustre roots. Angel Coulby shines as Mike's regal yet sassy wife, and Kent directs a tight production, leaving room for the actors to fill the space, scenes seamlessly shifting around them.
The play is short and sweet, each act only 50 minutes long. An excellent tale of bold and brash characters fighting for survival, this piece is a warm-hearted paean to the importance of filling your life with good people.