Where did we start from, how did we get to where we are, and how much choice did we have along the way? Are the successes or failures of social advancement dependent on fate, luck or our own decisions? And in a society of hardship and injustice, what does pay to be a good person? These age-old questions find themselves a new voice in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People at the Noël Coward Theatre, and the answers oscillate between gut-wrenching pain and life-affirming pleasure.
The play opens as Margie (Imelda Staunton), a hard-up, tough cookie from an underpriveleged neighbourhood in South Boston, is fired for arriving late to work again. Her protests are pitifully honest – the babysitter of her handicapped daughter, for whom she is sole provider, is never on time – but they are also futile. With jobs hard to come by, she seeks help from a high-school boyfriend, Mikey (Lloyd Owen), who has recently returned to the area with a successful job as a fertility doctor. As Margie glimpses the seemingly blissful comfort of a world miles from her own, she becomes comsumed by personal regrets and class resentments, and encroaches obsessively on Mikey’s promise to help. Of course, despite an unforeseen climax which forces us to reappraise the events of the entire play, the ending sees little changed: with all the hope and determination she can muster, Margie must go on continuing to make ends meet.
Imelda Staunton tackles her role astoundingly. From touching desperation to jaded despair, endearing naivety to spiteful aggression, she inhabits her character with such authenticity that we become vicariously absorbed in her constant flux of emotions. She is particularly masterful at shifting from comic heroine to tragic victim, the clashing tones of the play: ‘How’s the wine?’ Mikey asks after Margie invites herself around; ‘How the fuck should I know?’ she quips in her superb Southie accent, without missing a beat. Seconds later, and she is back on the warpath.
Needless to say, Staunton is upheld by an incredibly strong cast. Lorraine Ashbourne and Susan Brown are thoroughly amusing as Jean and Dottie, Margie’s brazen and eccentric bingo pals, respectively. Likewise, Lloyd Owen is suitably smug as the doctor, while still managing to elicit a touch of sympathy for a man suddenly made to justify his desire for a better life.
There are few American plays about social class, and Lindsay-Abaire’s script is effective in depicting the limited horizons of the so-called ‘American dream’. Mikey’s claim that his success equates to hard work is much less straightforward than it seems: Margie reminds him compulsively of the tiny luck that facilitated his career, and elsewhere the authority of the offstage bingo caller reminds us of our lack of control over our fortunes. But perhaps what I found most tragic about the play – for indeed, the regular jokes did little but accentuate the overriding sense of hopelessness – is the subtle but startling revelation that Margie’s predicament stems from her own goodness. This is a world where ruthlessness outwardly prevails, but there is a small glimmer of hope that goodness can still triumph quietly.
Good People is a well-paced, thematically resonant and genuinely affecting play. Much of that is owing to Lindsay-Abaire’s strong writing, but it is Imelda Staunton who almost single-handedly lifts this strong script to momentous heights. She was entirely deserving of her standing ovation, and I felt privileged to have been part of her audience. *****