Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire
Director: Adrian Rawlins
Set Design: Ed Ullyart
Lighting: Simon Bedwell
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
In the publicity for East Riding Theatre’s production of Good People the strapline, “A comedy with an edge”, is used. Well, yes, up to a point. David Lindsay-Abaire certainly has a gift for verbal and character comedy that slides in on-demand – a gift aided by Adrian Rawlins’ canny and pacy production and by his wonderfully adept cast of six – but so often, in the second half, it seems that it’s more edge than comedy. If this is a comedy, it’s comedy with teeth in the eviscerating American tradition of Edward Albee and David Mamet. More localised comparisons have been made with Alan Ayckbourn, not really accurate, but understandable.
Lindsay-Abaire was brought up in the rough neighbourhood of South Boston, known as “Southie”, but escaped early on a scholarship. Good People looks at the people who never escaped, plus one who did, and ponders the role of luck and the gulf that class can create. More pertinently it asks who the good people are. Mike, the doctor who escaped and now emerges as a benefactor, is shown to have feet of clay, but what of Margaret, his former girlfriend, who drives him to reveal them? Is she a good person? Sometimes she seems so, but the jury remains out. A distinguished New York critic, on the play’s original 2011 production, referred to Mike as a “callous villain” and Margie as “a perfect heroine/victim”. Not in Rawlins’ brash, but subtle, treatment – the play’s ambiguity is a joy.
The first half consists of short scenes. Margaret, a middle-aged single mother with a grown-up handicapped daughter who needs constant attention, gets the sack for bad time-keeping from her job as a cashier in a Dollar Store. She learns from her friend Jean that her boyfriend of two months from her pre-pregnancy schooldays, Mike, now a distinguished doctor, is back in Boston. She goes to see him to get a job, fails in that, but wheedles an invitation to his birthday party. He phones to cancel the party, but she is convinced that he is lying and determines to go anyway. Most of the second half takes place at Mike’s, the party genuinely cancelled, Mike’s very young, black, thoroughly middle-class wife Kate initially welcoming to Margie – and the scene is set for a 21st-Century version of Get the Guests in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – this time it’s mostly the guest who does the getting.
Janet Prince’s acerbic, eccentric, irredeemably selfish Dottie, Margie’s landlady, and Nada Sharp’s motor mouth Jean, both experts at a quip or a putdown, are pitch-perfect, as is Michael Kinsey as Stevie, the personally kind manager who is forced to sack Margie, a good man in a harsh world – maybe, only maybe, Number 1 in the list of Good People.
Misha Duncan-Barry as Kate develops from a poised and intelligent cipher to take her stand on what matters to her. Both she and Rory Murray (Mike) convey equally the certainties and the cracks in their prosperous middle-class world and his performance is beautifully paced, a not unpleasant smugness chipped at by Margaret, near-outbursts controlled by uneasy charm, until finally, raw emotions emerge.
Joy Brook has large shoes to fill as Margaret, a role played initially by Frances McDormand and in the only UK production by Imelda Staunton – and she fills them. Totally credible as a character, plausible rather than convincing in her intentions, she makes us question her reasons and her motivation constantly. She has lived her life mostly for others – one of the good people? – but, as Stevie asks in a rare outburst, why does she have to make things so complicated?
East Riding Theatre doesn’t have such luxuries as wing space or a fly tower, but Ed Ullyart conveys locations simply and effectively with the help of versatile flats and muscle power – and we concentrate on an excellent piece of actors’ theatre.
Runs until 24 March 2018 | Image: Contributed