Monday, April 21, 2014

The American Birthday Play

Happy Birthday to me!  Just to do something out of the ordinary I went to the theatre - twice!  I saw a new American play and a revival of a British play... first off the rank is the American play.

I dawdled over getting tickets for GOOD PEOPLE at the Hampstead Theatre, did I really want to see Imelda Staunton in this bearing in mind I already have tickets to see her as Rose in GYPSY later in the year?  Of course it then sold out and I felt that I had miscalculated.  Luckily for me, THE FULL MONTY came and went at the Noel Coward Theatre and when it was announced that GOOD PEOPLE would take it's place I jumped at the chance of a reduced price offer.

I had a vague idea of the plot from what I had gleaned when David Lindsay-Abaire's play opened on Broadway with it's Tony Award-winning turn by Frances McDormand so it was interesting to come to it clean.  What I found was a play with a sticky and slightly forced first act and a riveting second act.


South Boston is not a good place to be, jobs are few and times are tough even for these locals who are used to the art of daily grind for survival. Such is the case with Margie,struggling to get by as a single mother of a mentally-handicapped daughter.  As the play starts her life gets harder when she is sacked from her cashier's job at the local dollar store and her landlady intimates that unless Margie comes up with next month's rent, she will let her son have the apartment instead.

At her wit's end, Margie hears that a friend for her childhood is back in town.  Mike managed to 'get out' and become a successful doctor so Margie wheedles her way into his office ostensibly to see if he can offer her any work but also to get back in with him.  She knows it's a long-shot but is sure he will come through as they used to date as teenagers and his family were 'good people'.

In a testy meeting, Margie does her best to hide her desperation and when she hears that Mike is going to have a party in a few days, wangles an invitation to attend and meet his younger wife Kate.

Mike calls her the day before the party to tell her that due to his daughter's illness he is cancelling it but Margie assumes that he is lying and determines to go to his house anyway and confront him and his "lace curtain Irish" ways.  Up to this point I was fighting to keep interested in the play which seemed all a bit forced with heavy reliance on the gargoyle performances of Lorraine Ashbourne's gobby friend Jean and Susan Brown's landlady Dottie.

But what a difference an interval can do.  Mike and Kate's quiet night in is disrupted by Margie who Kate assumes to be a waitress hired by the caterer.  Despite this Margie is welcomed by Kate to stay for a glass of wine and attempts to be the perfect host, unaware of the bristling undercurrent between the other two.

This scene, which plays almost like the perfect one-acter, drop-kicked the play finally into life.  Margie's rage at being discounted from Mike's life, Mike's anger at Margie's emotional blackmail and Kate's gradual realization that she is a stranger to both the people in the room was great to watch with it's shifting emotional tectonic plates, the audience moving their allegiances with each turn.

After this a coda scene closed the show, a small act of kindness being shown to give hope but the play ended on a desolate note, there will always be another bill, another month's rent...

Jonathan Kent's direction seemed to come into it's own in the second act, as I said I found the first act to be rushed and to be heading nowhere but he rose to the challenge of the big confrontation scene by teasing out the uncomfortable suspense until the big explosion.  I also liked Hildegard Bechtler's sets - down-at-heel and cluttered for Margie's world, smooth and clean for Mike's.

Apart from the over-played supporting performances mentioned above, the cast were all excellent.  Matthew Barker was fine as the young manager of the dollar store called upon to sack Margie and bristling over the constant emotional blackmail over his dead mother.

I have always found Angel Coulby's TV performances to be negligible but here she sparkled as Kate, Mike's welcoming and good-natured wife, and when even she reaches her breaking point she made her a formidable opponent.  Lloyd Owen is another actor who has never really impressed in anything, but here he excelled as Mike, unapologetic in his earlier wish to better himself and get out of the festering atmosphere of South Boston.  Towards the end of the confrontation scene, Lindsay-Abaire does pull a rug from under his character which doesn't totally ring true but Owen had by then built up a solid and believable character.

Towering figuratively if not literally above all, Imelda Staunton was the bruised centre of the play.  In a performance of contrasts, Staunton's Margie was defiantly proud of her roots but ashamed of the options it has given her, defiant yet vulnerable, good-humoured but with a bubbling anger at the actions of others, all played at a high level of commitment and energy which was breathless to watch.  Both she and I have come a long way from the Hot Box Club in the National Theatre's 1982 production of GUYS AND DOLLS.  I now am very excited to see her take on 'Rose' at Chichester in October.

Most new American play-writing tends to fade in the more exacting standards of UK theatre and while Lindsay-Abaire's play has it's problems, that febrile second act will stay with me for a long time.

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