Cost of Living at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

Cost of Living

Hampstead Theatre, 27th February 2019

I can’t remember the last time I attended a performance at the Hampstead Theatre Upstairs or Downstairs that wasn’t, to all intents and purposes, full. Matinee or evening. Not a great surprise given the theatre’s reputation and location but still a testament to the winning mix of premieres of new plays by Brit drama royalty, (Mike Bartlett, Howard Brenton, Michael Frayn, Simon Gary, David Hare, Terry J0hnson, Nick Payne, Joe Penhall, Nina Raine< Beth Steel and Roy Williams for example), a smattering of revived recent classics, some vital new voices, some canny transfers and some top quality heavyweight American imports. When Edward Hall took over as AD decade ago, (alongside Executive Producer Greg Ripley-Duggan), the theatre was on its knees. Now it is thriving. All this without public subsidy. It will be interesting to see how Roxana Silbert, coming in now that Mr Hall is moving on, builds on his legacy.

All this has been achieved without compromising on quality or intellectual heft. Cost of Living being a perfect example, the hundredth premiere since Edward Hall came in. Martyna Majok’s four hander is another Pulitzer Prize winner seeing its UK premiere at the HT, (with one original cast member in Katy Sullivan who plays Ani), which looks at the marginalised in US society, through the voices of two people with disabilities and their carers. Ms Majok drew from her own experiences as a carer, (amongst many other precarious jobs, a first generation Polish immigrant to the US, with her mother, trying to build a career as a playwright), splicing together the opening monologue in a bar from Eddie (Adrian Lester), with a short play she had written about an academic wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, John (Jack Hunter) and his carer Jess (Emily Barber) and yet another short work with characters which became Ani (a bilateral above knee amputee) and husband Eddie. Whilst initially there isn’t much to link the three stories, Ms Majok just about brings the strands together by the end, though this is still more successful as a character, rather than plot, driven narrative.

That it works is in large part down to the accuracy of the writing and the performance of the cast. We learn how little money three of the characters have to get by on, (the exception being John), the “cost of living”, but, more importantly, we get to see how the three relationships develop, (Jess ends up with Eddie at the end – I’ll refrain from explaining how or why). There is dry humour and some moving, though utterly unsentimental, episodes, but always with a natural cadence in the dialogue and a clear-sighted purpose. Ms Majok, by choosing to just show, rather than confront or evade, stereotypes of people with disabilities and those who look after them, has created an involving, and entertaining, play whose minor structural flaws are easily forgiven.

Mind you this sort of had me with Eddie’s expansive opening monologue, or more accurately one-sided dialogue. He is in a bar buying drinks for a stranger and telling some of his, broken, life story. Now it helps that this was delivered by Adrian Lester who is a master of his craft and, if I am honest, the main reason I snapped up a ticket. Mr Lester may have devoted much of his considerable talent to film and TV but when he pitches up on stage it is always essential viewing as I know from the Hytner NT Othello with Rory Kinnear, (one of the Tourist’s best ever theatre experiences), and in Red Velvet, written by his missus. I am no expert on accents but his Eddie seemed utterly plausible and the way he pleads, pauses, corrects himself, changes expressions, reacts to the unseen stranger, engages with us but without breaking the wall, is just riveting.

Eddie is estranged from the feisty Ani, with a new partner, after the car accident that left her quadriplegic, but, when his truck-driving work dries up, he offers to become her paid carer despite her misgivings. Their shared past is revisited, often with great tenderness, but there is always the sense that Eddie is seeking redemption, despite not being to blame for the accident, and that Ani is only slowly coming to terms with her changed circumstances.

Jess may have recently graduated from Princeton but takes on the role as John’s carer to make ends meet alongside working in a dodgy all-night bar. John’s independent income allows him to pursue his academic career, also at Princeton, free from money worries but also gives him privilege. What makes him interesting is that he knows, and bluntly expresses, this. He is as matter of fact as the other three, struggling, characters and this is where the message of the play lies in its implicit criticism of the US healthcare and welfare systems.

Mr Lester’s performance as the gentle, melancholic Eddie is matched by his fellow cast. Katy Sullivan is mesmeric as Ani. whose wary, hard-arsed exterior only thinly masks a warm and loving interior. The bath scene is about as generous a scene as you could ever see on stage. Presumably because acting is so easy for her, Katy Sullivan is also a producer, writer and four time US 100m (T42) Paralympian champion. Martyna Majok asks a lot of Jack Hunter and Emily Barber to build a believable relationship from a few short scenes which also carry a much of the intellectual meat of the play, and it is to their credit that they pull this off. John verges on the overbearing and, initially, bluntly looks down on Jess. She in turn is defensive and evasive. A warm friendship blooms around their transactional relationship though their crucial, dislocating, final scene slightly strains credulity. The shower scene though, mirroring the bath scene of the other couple, is similarly affecting.

I knew I recognised Emily Barber but couldn’t place where. Turns out she was the Speaker, as Antigone, in the staging of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex at the Royal Festival Hall, a few years back. Top Kudos as Sophocles himself might have said. I also see Jack Hunter moonlights as a comedian. That figures. He has an easy confidence that suggests a bright stage future.

Edward Hall’s fluid direction is matched by the design of Michael Pavelka (new to me) who sketches out the four spaces, the bar, Ani’s functional flat, John’s tasteful apartment and Eddie’s threadbare motel room without getting in the way of the movement (with two wheelchairs) required to complement the dialogue.

Hopefully the HT will continue to get more than its fair share of the best of contemporary US plays to London to set alongside this and the likes of Gloria, Describe the Night, Good People, Rabbit Hole and The Humans which the Tourist has enjoyed in recent years.

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