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Review: Cost of Living (Hampstead Theatre)

Adrian Lester and Katy Sullivan star in the UK premiere of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Adrian Lester (Eddie) and Katy Sullivan (Ani) in Cost of Living
© Manuel Harlan

There's a scene in this play by Polish-American playwright Martyna Majok that is unlike anything I have seen on a British stage. An able-bodied man tenderly and carefully bathes a woman who has been left quadriplegic after a car accident. As she lies in the bath, they talk and laugh. He teases her, she is rude to him. She reveals how little she can feel. They listen to music and he gently taps out the tune on her arm.

It is poignant, funny, and thought-provoking by turns. It's sad, happy and scary. And it is played by Adrian Lester and former Paralympian star Katy Sullivan with such emotional honesty that you could watch it for ever.

There's no doubt at all that there are some very fine things in this Pulitzer Prize winning play, given its British premiere here and delicately directed by Edward Hall. It dares to venture to places few dramas go, examining with a kind of wide-eyed truthfulness the lives of a marginalised quartet struggling to get by in Brooklyn.

Its boldness is to suggest that the way that disability and money affect our lives and relationships are not always as straightforward as we might assume. The love between Eddie (Lester) and his wife Ani (Sullivan) deepens after her accident; they have been estranged but find their way back together in gradual steps every bit as painful as her frustration at being unable to move. The relationship between John, a wealthy man with cerebral palsy (Jack Hunter) and his Polish carer Jess (Emily Barber) also develops in unexpected ways. Power and understanding are not automatically vested in those who seem more vulnerable. As Eddie remarks towards the close "Everybody needs something".

Majok's writing has a poetic naturalism which is easy on the ear. But the individual scenes – engrossing and interesting in themselves – never quite come together in a coherent whole. The ending, which brings a neatish conclusion, feels forced. Afterwards I read in the programme that she had made the play from two separate ideas and that still shows.

However, what makes this spare and elegant production worth seeing, with its attractively snowy designs by Michael Pavelka, is the acting. Both Sullivan and Hunter are disabled. She was – and it is not often you write this in a theatre review – a four times US Champion in the 100 metres. But they are both also magnificent actors, playing parts that do not exactly align with their disabilities with a truthfulness that makes it hard to imagine a non-disabled actor taking on such a role in future.

Sullivan originated the part of Ani off-Broadway and the depth of her understanding of this foul-mouthed, clever, wounded woman is clear. Hunter finds a lovely humour and a surprising hauteur as John. As his cautious, anxious carer, Barber finely suggests a woman on the edge, but battling on with courage. And as Eddie, Lester is just simply astounding. He hasn't been on stage for three years, and how I have missed him. He has such presence, grace and directness, finding every nuance in Eddie's tentative moves towards understanding himself and others, every pain and each joy stamped across his face and directly into your heart.

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