“Look let’s just go there, to the pie place, and we’ll have, like, some pie, and we’ll just, like, talk, or not even talk, we’ll just eat pie first and be. And after that, we’ll talk.”
On the National Theatre’s website and nearby publicity, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ show is labelled The Motherf**ker with the Hat; inside the theatre, the accepted verbal version is The Mother with the Hat; I hear rumours that TfL have insisted on The Mother****** with the Hat for their posters (though I’ve yet to see one); and on Twitter, the official hashtag manages the neatly encapsulated #MoFoHat. But dammit, I’ve got to get it out just once at least, the title of this play is The Motherfucker with the Hat. And if that offends you, then seriously don’t book a ticket cos it’s just the tip of the iceberg, know whadda mean!
Premiered on Broadway in 2011 with a cast featuring Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale, it’s a vibrant slice of Nuyorican life on the rough side and lays its card on the table in its opening seconds. Reformed drug dealer Jackie has just been released from Riker’s Island determined to turn over a new leaf but his beloved “Beautiful Boriqua Taino Mamacita Fuck Me Long Time Princess Fuckin’ Beauty Queen” Veronica is still using and just as they’re about to get on down under the covers, he spots another gentleman’s hat on the table and all hell breaks loose, drawing in Jackie’s cousin Julio, his sponsor Ralph and Ralph’s long-suffering wife Victoria.
The opening salvo of Indhu Rubasingham’s production in the Lyttelton is nothing short of fantastic. Robert Jones’ design combines the magical with the mundane, as pieces of the set slide into view from seemingly nowhere – Oliver Fenwick’s lighting most impressive in facilitating this – and rotating fragments of fire escape stairs float above. And as Flor De Liz Perez’s scintillating Veronica and Ricardo Chavira’s equally striking Jackie go at it with their lust for each other, for life, for new beginnings, for the truth, it feels as important (and relatively rare) a look at a section of working class American lives as David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People.
Get swept along with Cousin Julio’s hilarious interventions (“Leave the guns, take the empanadas” – a scene-stealing delight from original cast member and Tony nominee Yul Vázquez), wonder at Alec Newman’s oleaginous health-food obsessed hypocrisy as the allegedly saintly Ralph; and marvel too at how he and an impressively grounded Nathalie Armin as the eminently sensible Victoria fit so seamlessly into the cast that you’d be hard-pressed to identify which three were bona-fide Americans – brilliant voice work from Jeannette Nelson and dialect coach Cecile O’Reilly.
Ultimately, it perhaps isn’t quite as good as Good People, Guirgis gets a little too wrapped up in his gift for breath-taking swathes of charismatic dialogue for it to have a similar dramatic heft but crucially it is much more fun and a much-welcomed breath of bracingly fresh air here at the NT. There’s something touching too about its realisation that there’s a bit of the motherf**ker in all of us, that the human state is often a mass of walking contradictions and that sometimes you just gotta quit. Whatever you want to call The Motherf**ker with the Hat, you can’t deny its unique charms.