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Imelda Staunton Shines in Good People at Hampstead Theatre

07/03/2014 11:21 GMT | Updated 06/05/2014 10:59 BST

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Photo by keanlanyon

A tough gritty drama about life for a single mother in the rough area of South Boston may not be the kind of production you'd expect to see on a London stage, let alone with Imelda Staunton in it, but Good People is such a phenomenally superb production that it stands out for all the right reasons.

At the centre of this show is an extraordinary performance from Imelda Staunton as Margie, a single mother battling to stay on the right side of the poverty line. She juggles a job at the dollar store with her responsibility as carer for her handicapped adult daughter. But this responsibility means she's persistently late for work and so, right at the start of the play, Margie is fired from her job for being unreliable.

The stakes are high - if she doesn't make rent, Margie and her daughter will be kicked out of their run-down apartment. So when Margie hears news that an old flame, Mike (Lloyd Owen), might be able to offer her a job, she decides to ask him for help - even though she hasn't seen him for over 20 years.

Only Mike's life is now a world away from her own. Mike grew up in Southie (South Boston) too, where he and Margie had a brief fling, but unlike Margie, Mike stuck at school, went to college, became a doctor and now lives in a posh suburban part of Boston, with his beautiful young wife Kate (Angel Coulby).

And so weaved into this plot are the themes of class divide, the haves and the have-nots, and the role that luck - both good and bad - plays in the hand that life deals us.

Margie's desperate attempts to find work reveal her chaotic mess of emotions, pressures and responsibilities. Determined to do whatever it takes, she's at times vulnerable, at other times as vicious as a viper. Staunton's ability to show the cracks in this mask, as well as the sudden repapering over of them, is phenomenal.

Imelda Staunton is superb, yes, but the acting throughout this cast is first class. June Watson and Lorraine Ashbourne shine as Margie's friends - though you would find scant comfort from them. They dole out only tough love. And Matthew Barker gives a beautifully sensitive performance as Stevie, the shy man caught up in the drama.

The quality runs all the way through this production directed by Jonathan Kent, who keeps the pace of the play tight though always allowing Margie's moments of vulnerability to just hang long enough for us to feel them.

The grit of Southie is perfectly realised in Hildegard Bechtler's urban stage design. And it creates a beautiful contrast with the gentle soft palette of creams and beiges of Mike's suburban life.

But it's the source material, the writing, that ensures this success. In Good People, David Lindsay-Abaire, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, spins a delicate web of deceit and desperation that twists and turns with every revelation.

Lindsay-Abaire used to live in South Boston and this knowledge of the people, their talk, their attitudes, their group mentality, is all beautifully reflected in the sharp, fast, straight-talking dialogue. Margie's community are all complex characters, outspoken and full of contradictions.

We're more used to seeing South Boston in Ben Affleck films so it's great seeing it used on a stage too. Class remains a divisive issue in British society yet there is also such a divide in American society between the wealthy and the poor so all the profound questions this American play asks are just as pertinent to us.

And the result is that Good People is unequivocally brilliant.

Hampstead Theatre, London

To April 5, 2014