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THEATRE: 26 APRIL 2016

By TONI CARROLL

Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire | Directed by Mark Kilmurry

Ensemble Theatre (http://ensemble.com.au) | Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney | Until 21 May

In July last year, I wrote a review for Ladies in Lavender at the Ensemble Theatre. The Guest and I had found ourselves seated next to Sandra Bates, artistic director of the company for 30 years and, we’d discovered, about to retire the following January.

Ladies in Lavender represented exactly what I have come to expect from the Ensemble:

“The great thing about the Ensemble Theatre is that you know you’re in safe hands. These are true professionals who are talented and focused, who hit their marks and know their lines. They know how to work together, both onstage and offstage, to envelop us in the story they are telling.”

Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire, is no exception. There are no weak links in this outstanding cast. All work together as a tightly-knit unit … surprisingly tightly knit for opening night. It’s a joy to watch such skilled actors bringing characters and their relationship dynamics to life.

However, the choice of play is not so much what I’ve usually come to expect from the Ensemble.

In choosing the play, Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s new artistic director, could be in the process of turning the cruise ship in a different direction. Under Bates’s navigation, the Ensemble catered very much to its geographical and socio-economic audience. Understandable, as the company relies on bums on seats rather than arts funding.

Good People is set in the north-eastern US world of the underpaid battler. Tara Morice is Margaret, single mother of a disabled daughter, who loses her job and might lose her paltry rented flat if she can’t find work. At her age, that seems unlikely. Jane Phegan stands out at Jean, her uncouth and outrageous best friend. The trio of friends is rounded out with Gael Ballantyne, Margaret’s dottie landlord-cum-babysitter-cum-bingo-addict, Dottie. They spend a lot of time sitting around formica tables talking, bitching, consoling and taking the piss out of each other … or whatever the equivalent American term is.

Act I is a long setup of this world. Perhaps too long. By interval The Guest and I were scratching our heads wondering what the point was and coming up with ideas of where it might lead. Why were we left with such a lacklustre impression, we wondered, when we could not identify anything wrong with the quality of what we had just seen? The performances were spot on. The timing was honed. The jokes were copious and witty, and delivered to perfection. We should have chattering excitedly.

But, oh my, the second Act is well worth the wait! Working-class Margaret is thrust into the upper-class world of Mike (Christopher Stollery), a childhood friend who very successfully ‘got out’ of Southy (South Boston), and his young wife, Kate (Zindzi Okenyo). These three take us on a tumultuous emotional ride so intense that, by the end, we’re happy to return to bingo hall.

As compelling as it was, I can only imagine how powerful it would have been had Kilmurry, also the director, portrayed the world of Southy as more realistic, and less sanitised for the Ensemble audience.

Above: Jane Fegan, Tara Morice and Gael Ballantyne. All images: Clare Hawley.

Zindzi Okenyo.

Drew Livingston.

Christopher Stollery.