Good People is a gorgeous title, and one of those few examples where ‘a character saying the title in the play’ enriches, rather than antagonises. When Imelda Staunton’s South Boston working-class mom Margaret says of her one-time sweetheart Mike (Lloyd Owen) “He’s good people” it drives to the heart of both her perfectly render local idiom and her fundamental internal conflict. Because her old boyfriend left to get an education and she stayed exactly where she we find her, working dead-end jobs to look after her child, now an adult but with severe learning difficulties. On his return to Southie as a ‘comfortable’ middle-class doctor – a poor kid done good, and with an attractive young black wife – Mike is confronted by a Margaret who has been fired yet again and has decided to turn to her old flame for help.
Staunton’s performance is more than a star turn – it’s fierce and accomplished craft, and Margaret is desperate, outspoken but always and necessarily likable in her hands. The role is like an American Willy Russell creation – strong and sad. But it is the precision with which the character is written, and the unfamiliarity of the setting to the UK audience, which makes this play and Staunton’s performance punch above their weight.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, part of a short series of UK premieres of US works at Hampstead Theatre, speaks into the UK media’s false dichotomy between the hardworking and the lazy poor through its insistence on its specificity. Lindsay-Abaire is from South Boston. This is a South Boston play. It doesn’t shirk from the area’s overlapping cultural, racial, religious and financial histories. Your common or garden Boston accent won’t do here, like you heard Julianne Moore mock on 30 Rock. Mix in a bit more Irish. Toughen it up. There you go. Even OB-GYN Mike, looming over Margaret like a friendly giant with designer stubble will slide back into that angry drawl when he’s accused of being ‘lace curtains’ – those curtains that show you’re on the way up, but which you’ll use to shut your old friends out.
By inviting us into that kind of saturated specificity Lindsay-Abaire dissolves the striver/shirker language that Channel 4 won’t let us works ourselves free from, and presents us with something harsher and darker – giving us at times the incisive humour of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park but without the broadness. In fact, the press night audience’s deeply middle-class laughter and even applause when Margaret couldn’t care less about Mike’s choice of wine hung almost uneasily in the air. This play seems to shoot angry looks at Hampstead’s audience and its high modern building.
In fact the design of the production, by Hildegard Bechtler, seems as first too bold and modern – more in keeping with the theatre than the play. Not content with the scene change by revolve that starts the play, Mike’s office then flies in from the gods, and in the second half his grand house in the suburbs is lavishly decorated to the last, tastefully minimalist detail, with deep pile carpets and white sofas. It feels almost too much for this dirty dark play about luck, pride and poverty. But in fact it’s a layered design – across the back wall is a huge blown-up collage of South Boston’s dilapidated streets above tired bricks and waste.
The play opens on the bins out back of the dollar store. Whatever is placed in front of these – Margaret’s rented apartment where her daughter has the TV on too loud, the bingo hall where the numbers are called out like pronouncements from on high, the fancy doctor’s office with Mike’s family photographs, and even the affluent couple’s living room with the view of the garden – whatever obscures, we don’t forget what’s behind it.