Cost of Living at the Hampstead Theatre: ‘uneven but powerful’
Sarah Gibbs reviews Maryna Majok’s Cost of Livingat the Hampstead Theare starring Adrian Lester.
On the return journey from Hampstead Theatre, I saw a woman struggling off the tube with a cane and almost cried. Edward Hall’s production of Cost of Living, Martyna Majok’s meditation on poetry and disability, leaves the audience member feeling like an exposed nerve, hypersensitized to physical limitation and dependence. While the script is uneven, the cast gives committed, often heartrending, performances of sadly topical material.
The lights come up on a lone glass of seltzer water. Eddie (Adrian Lester) enters with his bar stool. He’s friendly in a way that suggests loneliness, and as he chats to the audience / bar patron, we learn that he’s a long-haul trucker—or used to be, before a drunk driving incident—and that his wife, Ani (Katy Sullivan), recently died. Someone else has her old phone number now; he’s come out to the bar because a misdirected text felt like a message from the grave. Ani, paralyzed in a terrible accident, used to message him when he was on the road. The action then moves back in time, and across town, to where wheelchair-bound academic John (Jack Hunter) is interviewing Jess (Emily Barber) for a care-giver job. Jess is reticent about her background, along with the reason she tends bar even though she graduated from Princeton. Sometimes, it appears, the working poor are educated, young, and pretty. The two storylines gradually move toward convergence.
Lester’s performance is exceptional. Eddie is the play’s emotional center, and Lester moves seamlessly from humour to grief and guilt, and back again, often within a single exchange. His opening monologue has an unpremeditated, conversational ease I used to believe belonged exclusively to Jeff Goldblum dialogue. He also has some of the play’s best lines. Says the former trucker, “Utah is fucking gorgeous. And no one even knows.” He reminds us that “roads are dark, and America is long.” Barber communicates well Jess’s shame and desperation as her circumstances worsen, and refreshingly, Sullivan portrays a flawed woman who happens to be disabled, rather than an archetypal “disabled woman.” She and Lester have excellent chemistry; the pair’s conversations evince the blend of love, anger, frustration, and familiarity of the long-married.
The staging is effective, if unexceptional. Enough money, and a contemporary script, many of which increasingly adopt cinematic approaches to space, seem to leech some of the interest from set design. Majok’s script moves between multiple locations, and many scenes begin en media res. Happily, or unhappily, Hampstead Theatre can simply raise the minimalist backdrop, and glide a shower stall or bedroom set onto stage to signal a new locale.
Unfortunately for a show with only four characters, one is underdrawn. According to an interview with Majok available in the programme, the character of John originated in a ten-minute comedic play. He does not seem to have evolved significantly. He initially appears to be what is now a stock figure: a character with a chip on his shoulder as well as a disability. Al Pacino in The Scent of a Woman and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, among many others, established the trope. Majok seems to belatedly
realize the limitations of the type, and includes a few emotional lines, but John’s inner landscape remains opaque; he ultimately feels like a device necessary to prompt the final crisis.
But what a crisis it is: emotional, instructive, true. Cost of Living is imperfect but moving, uneven but powerful. The production offers a lesson in empathy for us all.
Cost of Living is at the Hampstead Theatre until the 9th March, 2019.
Photographs: Manuel Harlan