Friday, 17 March 1989


Paul Anderson, review of My Girl by Barrie Keefe (Theatre Royal, Stratford East), Tribune, 17 March 1989

Barrie Keefe's  new play is a gritty naturalist two-hander set in a run-down rented flat in Leytonstone High Road. Anyone who has been forced into the London private rented sector knows the sort of place: £70 a week for three damp, cold, tastelessly furnished and poorly decorated rooms, with shared bathroom and toilet and a dangerous gas water-heater in the kitchen.

The people who live here are Sam (Karl Howman), a social worker coming up to his 30th birthday, his pregnant wife, Anita (Meera Syal), and their baby daughter. Sam and Anita are broke. The baby keeps them up at night. Anita is worried that worse poverty is to come. Sam is frustrated by his work and suffers from boils. They bicker. And as the date on which the second baby is due approaches, he becomes increasingly distant from her, spending more and more time away from home with a young woman whom he claims is just another social work case but is actually a putative affair.

My Girl ends with reconciliation, after Sam: helps deliver.the baby and decides to quit his job so that the family can live outside London. But its not a simple happy ending: the reason Tor Sam and Anita's poverty is that Sam considers his job as a social worker as a political activity, helping the really poor to win small battles against the system. Getting out is an admission of defeat And what about all the poor without professional qualifications, who can't simply get out? If all this sounds grim, it's only part of the story.

Even as disaster follows disaster in the first two-thirds of the play, there is no shortage of laughs. Keeffe has an unerring ear for the language of everyday life, and Syal and Howman do his dialogue proud. Sam and Anita are not mere victims.

There are times when My Girl is a touch too sentimental, but on the whole it is a well-constructed, provocative and entertaining play about poverty. It's also refreshing to see a return to the kitchan sink in polemical political drama. The past couple of years have seen radical playwrights tending to concentrate on exploring the apparent successes of Thatcher's Britain (David Hare's The Secret Rapture and Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, to take just two examples): it's no bad thing to be reminded that the poor are still with us.