Ned Hopkins | 09 Sep 2018 00:29am
Photo: Pamela Raith.
One has long been accustomed to family ‘coming out’ dramas but Unexpected Joy looks at the problem from an unusual angle: that of a boomer generation grandmother engaged to an African-American woman.
In the narrow gap between Obama’s legalisation of gay marriage and the ascendency of the White House’s most recent incumbent, this would probably not have been a big issue. But in the USA today, and every other country where conservative forces and religious bigotry seem hell-bent on trying to reverse the process of liberalisation, the tension between democracy and intolerance is sadly pertinent again.
Not that this new musical, which arrives in Southwark following an initial production on Cape Cod in 2016, is a heavy intellectual affair. By no means. Bill Russell’s book and lyrics and Janet Hood’s upbeat rock-pop-gospel numbers ensure the mood is constantly changing and life-affirming. If anything, the writers try to pack too much into 100 minutes as three family members battle over each other’s generational stance on sexual, religious and racial politics.
Jump and Joy were professional singers. Jump died a year before the play begins. We are now the audience at Jump’s memorial concert – a framing device which allows the story to move fluidly back and forth in recent time as the strains between Joy’s daughter and granddaughter emerge. Each is also a singer and has just arrived in socially-progressive Provincetown from staunchly Republican Oklahoma to perform at the event.
Janet Fullerlove makes Joy a totally rounded character who, despite her freewheeling lifestyle, has retained a warm and caring attitude towards the people she loves most and struggles to do the right thing by each of them. Her song I Don’t Want to Get Married in which she reveals it would be enough for her simply to live with Lou, will strike a chord with many people falling in love late in life, wanting to commit to the other person but seeing no need to formalise the arrangement.
Despite her Jewish blood Rachel, Joy’s daughter, is married to a Christian fundamentalist and has also espoused her husband’s religion and anti-gay beliefs – principles he shares with the world on his TV programme. Perhaps the most difficult of the four roles, Jodie Jacobs – complete with Sarah Palin specs – is totally convincing as a woman conflicted over the clash between her own and her mother’s beliefs, yet ultimately wins our sympathy.
Keely Sweeney, recently graduated, makes a promising debut as Rachel’s daughter, Tammy, showing through her close affinity with her grandmother how family traits often skip a generation.
Melanie Marshall, most recently the musical mainstay of the NT’s excellent Jane Eyre, gets all the laughs in her role of the assertive, sharp-witted Lou, Joy’s fiancée. I especially liked her reply when asked when she had lost her faith: ‘I didn’t lose it, it got locked in a storage box – and I threw away the key.’ The singing is strong from all the performers, but Lou’s number She’s Got a Mind of Her Own and the title song shared with Joy are especially effective.
Indeed, the performances of all four actors are well-balanced and contrasted.
Verity Johnson has designed a simple but serviceable set matched with a good lighting design by Nic Farman. Gareth Bretherton leads a peppy band of four musicians which, thanks to James Nicholson’s well-balanced sound design, never gets in the way of the storytelling.
Amy Anders Corcoran’s direction keeps up the pace and ensures we are engaged with both the issues involved and the individual characters’ emotional dilemmas. If I found the dialogue occasionally glib and the final scene back at the concert a tad indulgent, this was not her fault. Maybe the book could be tweaked to remove the few soap suds? But overall Unexpected Joy makes for intelligent and tuneful entertainment.
Photo: Pamela Raith.