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Cost of Living review at Hampstead Theatre, London – ‘tender drama about the complexities of care’

Adrian Lester and Katy Sullivan in Cost of Living at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

There are some incredibly tender moments in Martyna Majok’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the intricate interpersonal relationship between two disabled people and their carers. But some aspects of the play are frustrating.

Ami (paralympian Katy Sullivan, who originated the role in the US) finds herself being cared for by her estranged husband Eddie (Adrian Lester) following an accident that has left her with quadriplegia. Jess (Emily Barber) is a cocktail waitress, hardened by life, who is employed as a carer by John (Jack Hunter) a wealthy Princeton graduate student with cerebral palsy.

Majok’s play explores dependency in all its forms, both emotional and physical. All four characters are needy, in one way or another. Ami and John might require people to bath and shave them, but Jess and Eddie have even greater lacks in their lives.

Two of the play’s key scenes involve moments of physical intimacy and emotional exposure. Jess shaves and showers John, dressing him afterwards, their increasing ease with each other apparent. Eddie assists Ami in the bath, washing her, laughing, reminiscing and sharing a cigarette, as the love between them deepens. Then, in the play’s most moving moment, he uses his fingers to play piano on her bare arm.

Majok is clearly interested in characters that are marginalised in American society: the working class, people with disabilities, immigrants. Sullivan is great as the resilient, proud Ami. She has excellent chemistry with Lester and there’s a sense that these two know each other inside out. Hunter displays the perfect balance of charm, arrogance and vulnerability, and convinces as the kind of privileged young man who fails to see how his actions impact on others.

Cost of Living also vividly demonstrates how much money affects the lives of the characters. While John is able to pay for the kind of care he needs when he needs it, Ami has to cope with nurses who fail to turn up on time, forcing her to reunite with Eddie.

Michael Pavelka’s sleek, serviceable set, with its various sliding panels and gliding furniture, also features a somewhat heavy-handed backdrop that shows what is presumably Ami’s car plummeting into a ravine.

Both Sullivan and Hunter revel in their roles. They get to play contradictory and volatile people, sexual, messy and regretful, all things rare in disabled characters on stage and screen. Lester is glorious, poignant, nuanced – grief overtaking him in waves. Barber is also excellent as the defensive Jess.

But the point at which the two narrative strands dovetail feels awkward and forced and it’s a shame that both John and Ami’s arcs are abruptly terminated for a final scene that hones in on Eddie and Jess. It seems odd, given what has gone before, for them to be sidelined in this way, reduced to catalysts.

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Tender and movingly acted production of a play about the complexities of care