Reviewed by David Smith
This was a spell-binding performance by the Adelaide Rep. Nick Fagan and his skilful cast sustained the intensity and interest from the outset. The subtleties of the interaction between the characters, the acute sense of timing, and the creation of character and mood were exceptional.
Premiered in 2011 and set in Boston, David Lindsay-Abaire’s play contrasts the grim life and prospects of the Southies with the aspirations and success of one of their number, the successful doctor Mike Dillon. Through the interaction of Dillon and out of work Margaret Walsh, we are often challenged to ask the question: Just who are the Good People of the play’s title? All, some or none?
While there is great intensity, especially in Act 2, the play has endearing humour, some of it grounded in the toughness of the characters’ lives, some of it found in dark, occasionally spiteful retorts.
Rachel Burfield was wonderful as Margaret. Right from her opening monologue she was credible as the resilient yet vulnerable working class single parent, living from hand to mouth. Margaret is always resourceful in trying to eke out a satisfactory existence for herself and disabled daughter, Joyce, whom we never see but whose significance continues to grow through the play. Burfield brought an honesty and authenticity to the role, notably through her unfaltering accent, feistiness and skilful portrayal of human vulnerability.
For the play and its themes to succeed and maintain our interest, Margaret’s strength needs to be matched by that of Mike Dillon, here subtly and believably played by Nicholas Bishop. It’s a challenging role in a number of senses, and Bishop readily met the challenges. He and Burfield clearly showed the shifting balance of power in their relationship, especially when brought to its high point in the second Act confrontation. They also teased out the major themes underlying the action – loyalty, truth, class and aspiration, to name but four.
The supporting cast were critically important to both the plot, and character development. Lyn Crowther was uncompromising and very funny as Margaret’s landlady, Dottie. Her one-line asides, especially in the bingo scenes, were timed and articulated to very best effect. Cate Rogers played Jean as a strong, occasionally manipulative influence on her friend Margaret, and Curtis Shipley gave a sensitive and thoughtful performance as Stevie, Margaret’s former work supervisor.
The major scene in Act 2, set in the Dillons’ lavish residence, benefitted immensely from the performance of Rhoda Sylvester as Mike’s wife, Kate, a university lecturer. She had a quiet strength and sense of decency which complemented both Margaret’s and Mike’s dialogue and behaviour. At the same time she succeeded in providing the essential motivation for a number of the scene’s crucial revelations.
Brittany Daw’s set design was functional, and differed between the Acts. In Act 1 the stage was virtually a triptych of simple flats, with the action moving between those three, and later, a downstage bingo table. Contrasting with that, the set for Act 2 was predominantly in the Dillons’ house, which was more elaborate, detailed and realistic. During the efficient and purposeful scene changes Margaret stood in a concentrated pool of light downstage, against against a background of music reflecting the scene and her state of mind.
This production truly affirms the Rep’s well established reputation for high quality theatre in Adelaide. It’s a gem.