Monday, 4 February 2019

Theatre review: Cost of Living

Time to take a risk on another Pulitzer winner at the Hampstead; it’s a combo that should sound promising but on past evidence is to be approached with caution. Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living does come with a couple of selling points though: Adrian Lester is usually worth catching on stage; and at a time when the film industry is once again taking flak for casting able-bodied actors in disabled roles, theatre gets to show how it’s done, as Edward Hall’s production casts two actors with disabilities. Usually seen as rather suave characters, Lester plays against type as Eddie, a former long-distance trucker who lost his job after a DUI. He’s also in the middle of a separation from his wife of 20 years Ani (Katy Sullivan,) when Ani has a car accident that leaves her quadriplegic. As she sets herself up in a tatty New Jersey apartment he initially decides to hold fire on divorce proceedings so she can keep using his health insurance; before volunteering to be her carer himself.

Their marriage broke down after an affair that Ani still hasn’t forgiven him for, but as Eddie persists in looking after her they start to rebuild a new kind of loving relationship.

Parallel to this runs the story of Jess (Emily Barber,) a Princeton graduate who’s fallen on hard times and already works a number of night-time bar shifts when she applies to be the carer for John (Jack Hunter,) a wealthy graduate student with cerebral palsy. Required to shave, shower and dress him every morning (providing us with 2019’s firstFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!in the process) this pair also get to know and like each other, but when Majok toys with the cliché of a patient falling for his carer she’s got quite a nice twist in mind to pull the rug out from under us.

And for the most part Cost of Living is a satisfying couple of hours, well-performed by all four actors who find the moments of humour and sympathy in what’s really quite a bleak subject. Although the emotional cost of going through life is an element of what Majok has to say, the title can be taken quite literally as the real underlying theme isn’t disability but poverty, and particularly what those two mean when put together in America, with its monetisation of healthcare. Even though Eddie and Ani have health insurance it’ll only pay out for a limited time, and as well as the opportunity to atone for his affair Eddie’s caring for his wife himself has a practical financial element as well. Meanwhile despite being unable to wash himself John is by far the most privileged person in the quartet, and has an arrogance the other three can’t afford, as well as the luxury of being able to miss the clues as to just how desperate Jess actually is.

On the downside, Majok’s plotting is pretty clumsy, especially bookending the play: It opens with a lengthy expositional monologue from Eddie some time after the main events, and ends by having the two storylines cross over in an unconvincing way. It also, having spent the majority of the evening making them three-dimensional characters, means the play abruptly jettisons its two disabled characters for what turns out to be an underwhelming ending. So there’s a feeling of Cost of Living being a few drafts away from the finished article, which doesn’t do much to change my impression that the Pulitzers reward ideas over execution. But the work on character is a lot stronger than that on plot and structure, meaning it gives the cast plenty to work with and create an emotional connection and the odd shock.

Cost of Living by Martyna Majok is booking until the 9th of March at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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