Imelda Staunton as Margie
Imelda Staunton as Margie
© Manuel Harlan

It's always a dangerous game attaching the label 'modern classic' to anything, but this riveting drama from previous Pulitzer winner David Lindsay-Abaire tempts me to take such a risk.

I didn't see the New York production, but it's hard to imagine anyone - even Tony winner Frances McDormand - topping the central performance of Imelda Staunton as Margaret ('Margie'), a down-on-her luck single mother who turns to a childhood sweetheart for help.

That sweetheart, Lloyd Owen's suave Mike, grew up in the same poor Boston neighbourhood as Margie but has now turned "lace curtain", in her words, by becoming a fertility doctor and settling in a wealthy suburb with his younger wife.

Margie's appearance at his home sparks a superb second act showdown which explores issues of class, race, and the myth of the modern American dream. In an age where the gap between rich and poor is at its greatest for generations, and politicians talk of "spreading privilege", Lindsay-Abaire provides an ominous reminder of the fine margins that separate those who climb the ladder, and those who don't.

In Margie's case her teenage pregnancy, and the disability of her daughter, prevented her from getting on even the first rung. Now unable to hold down a job at the dollar store, her louder-than-life friends Jean (a superbly brash Lorraine Ashbourne) and Dottie (Susan Brown, replacing June Watson) encourage her to approach Mike with a cunning plan I won't spoil here.

There's something of the Shirley Valentine about Margie, both witty women all-too aware of the shortcomings of their situations. Staunton, giving what must surely rank as one of her strongest performances in a glittering career, balances laughs ("How's the wine?," Mike asks her, "How the fuck would I know?" she fires back) with visceral agony. She almost chokes when she reflects that, had the fates allowed, the life Mike now enjoys with his knock-out wife Kate (a highly impressive Angel Coulby) could have been hers.

But, of course, it couldn't have been; Margie was doomed from the off, Lindsay-Abaire implies, and despite the fact that she is 'good people', in an American society that prizes the individual over the collective, it is the ruthless who rule while the rest are left to ride their luck.

Jonathan Kent's production, which has transferred to the West End from Hampstead Theatre, isn't perfect; the casting of Owen, ten years Staunton's junior, stretches credibility that they could have been teenage sweethearts. And I wasn't completely sold on designer Hildegard Bechtler's slightly strange combination of realism and cartoonish stylisation.

But all told it's a captivating, funny, and deeply thought-provoking evening. And one final mention must go to the supporting character Stevie (Matthew Baker), first seen reluctantly firing Margie from the dollar store and later alongside the ladies in a bingo hall. He allows Lindsay-Adaire to touch on one more key theme of modern America - blue collar attitudes to homosexuality. Among the many interesting questions he provokes over the course of two hours perhaps the most unexpected is why, indeed, is it gay to play bingo?

Read Michael Coveney's review from Hampstead Theatre

Come on our hosted WhatsOnStage Outing on 1 May 2014 and get your top-price ticket and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with members of the cast