If you're going to adapt a bestseller, don't choose the A-Z

The A-Z of Mrs P fails to make a hero out of Phyllis Pearsall. But Visitors and Good People deliver great theatre with high risk strategies

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

The A-Z of Mrs P

Southwark, until 29 March


Arcola, until 29 March

Good People

Hampstead, until 5 April

What’s the quickest way to create a hit musical? Base it on a bestselling book. The writers of The A-Z of Mrs P have done just that. But they’ve chosen the wrong book. You twits. You need to pick a popular novel, not the London street directory. The main character, Phyllis Pearsall, spent years trudging the pavements of the capital creating her catalogue of 23,000 streets. In this show, the character of Mrs P, a posh and self-contained bumpkin, proves dramatically inert. The writers seem to have twigged that she’s a dud, so they’ve turned their attention to her uppity Hungarian father and his sozzled Irish wife. But these two yield no rewards either. He’s a shouty nuisance and she’s a whimpering wreck. Several of the songs cleverly recreate the repetitive rat-a-tat soundscape of Mrs P’s diligent drudgery through London. This is well done, certainly, but, like the show, it’s the wrong thing to have attempted in the first place.

Visitors is an airless title for a curious drama about the human endgame. The setting is geriatric. So is the pace. Edie and Arthur have been married for about a century and Edie is showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Arthur employs a pretty young carer so that he can maintain their farm. A feckless son, Stephen, shows up, takes a fancy to the carer, and asks her out. The carer says, yes, maybe. These bare elements develop a little during the play but not much. It’s a high-risk strategy. Ageing actors, a boring set, a wordy script, a dearth of spectacle and action, and an understated manner are all proven narcotics in the theatre.

But within a few minutes it becomes clear that the play’s apparent failings are chosen with purpose and subtlety. The slothful setting is a neutral backdrop, which allows the characters’ warmth and tenderness, and their gentle humour, to shine through. Barney Norris’s smart, allusive script even manages to deliver a message about the health service that is gift-wrapped in comedy. Edie, who is fully aware that her personality is about to disintegrate, complains that the NHS responds too slowly to dementia. ‘Two years maybe before they help you. Or you can accelerate the process if you try to kill yourself a certain number of times. I wouldn’t.’ There, in a nutshell, is Edie’s character: intelligent, quizzical, honest and indomitable. This is a beautifully worked and quietly entertaining show. After the Arcola it heads off on tour. Well worth catching.

Another airless title, Good People, has been chosen by David Lindsay-Abaire for his play about class division in America. Margaret is a middle-aged deadbeat who gets sacked from her supermarket job. With a disabled daughter to care for, she’s desperate for work. She bumps into an old school flame, Mike, now a successful doctor, and begs him for help. He wriggles out of it. She then shows up at his massive house, hoping to cadge a job from one of his friends. Mike invites her in. His lovely young wife plies her with claret and asks her to ‘reveal all’ about her husband’s teenage years. Big mistake. Margaret, driven by bitterness and envy, reveals that Mike was part of a gang that once beat a neighbourhood kid unconscious. The kid was black. Mike’s wife happens to be black too. More bombshells follow as Margaret makes a calculated attempt to sabotage Mike’s happiness. She even drops hints that her disabled child might be his.

What a strange experience this play is. On paper it amounts to nothing more than a sad act of revenge by a spiteful loser. And yet, our sympathies follow the characters from the play’s opening beat. We understand Margaret’s aggressive self-pity and her manipulative cruelty. We also see that Mike’s pride in his success is compromised by his fear that prosperity has deprived him of kindness. The dialogue is marvellously worked. Long, informal scenes unspool with the random vagueness of real life. Yet every casual exchange has an inbuilt significance. It makes for magnetic viewing.

Jonathan Kent coaxes superb performances from his lead actors. Imelda Staunton gives the horrible Margaret all the vivacity and charm she can muster. A brilliant turn. Lloyd Owen, who specialises in sardonic stiffs, is ideally cast as the brainy, shifty Mike. This is more than just an excellent play. It stands clear of the crowd of excellent plays. There’s a kind of flawlessness in its composition and execution. By the end you sense that every detail has been selected and positioned with perfect judgment. Not a superfluous word or gesture intrudes anywhere. People will travel long distances and pay high prices to get the distinctive rush of outstanding art. Tickets are selling fast at Hampstead but a West End transfer is only a matter of time.

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