Sophie Adnitt reviews Unexpected Joy, a new musical by Bill Russell and Janet Hood now playing at Southwark Playhouse.
Set in Provincetown, Cape Cod, Unexpected Joy follows a week in the lives of three generations of women. Rachel, the wife of a very right wing TV evangelist, has bought daughter Tamara to visit her grandma (or ‘glam-ma’), baby boomer pop star, Joy. As one half of Joy and Jump (Rachel’s late father), Joy was a singing sensation, and is now planning a memorial concert a year after Jump’s death. Rachel has long disapproved of her mother’s hippy-esque lifestyle – smoking weed, taking part in feminist protests, and most of all, never marrying her father. But on this visit Joy has a secret to share with her straight laced daughter and rebellious granddaughter. She’s finally getting married. To a woman.
Bill Russell’s book stays on the lighter side of things, despite the potential for melodrama. All four characters of the piece are well rounded, likable and less so in turns. Despite Rachel’s antagonistic views, she’s refreshingly never presented as an out and out villain, and opposingly, Joy never as an all-knowing saint. Despite the smallness of the cast it never feels like we’re missing anybody; a wider world outside the scenes of the show is alluded to enough. Even the band, led by Gareth Bretherton, are included in the action as Joy’s musicians, greeting Tamara and Rachel with cool, silent nods. It’s also ridiculously funny. Strained silences between feuding family members are stretched to their very limit and the audience is in fits of laughter for most of the evening. A few surprisingly well pitched modern references bring the action bang up to date, and overall the script is warm and relatable.
Verity Johnson’s simple set allows the action to move seamlessly from time to time and place to place, with a few boho touches suggesting the retro interior of Joy’s house. The simplicity also allows for the performances to take the limelight – and wow, are they something.
Melanie Marshall as Joy’s activist, feminist fiancee Lou is a comedic delight, bestowed with some excruciatingly funny lines – and blessed with a great, full singing voice to go with them. Her rendition of She’s Got a Mind of Her Own is a fantastic introduction to the character, confident and only too self aware. Jodie Jacobs is another highlight, even making us sympathise with strict Rachel amidst powerful, roof-raising vocals. In her professional debut, Kelly Sweeney is a more than fine match as daughter Tamara. As Joy, Janet Fullerlove is hilarious, caught between a rock and a hard place, casually rolling a joint mid-song and staggering into rehearsal hungover after a disastrous evening.
The songs are a mixed bag; the titular tune, used first as a duet and then as a finale reprise is wonderfully catchy. The Joy and Jump tunes all capture the sixties vibe and showcase the performers voices well. Aspiring songwriter Tamara’s self penned Like a Good Girl is an early comic delight that revels in audacity. However, when things get more introspective, and characters sing their thoughts instead, the simplistic rhymes and basic structures become much more apparent. The ‘in concert’ numbers simply work so much better. Plus, for a 100 minute running time, there are a few too many songs rammed in.
Overall, this is a warm, witty piece, which explores the dynamics of changing generations without the unnecessary angst that so often comes along too. The fact that it’s so female centric is a huge element of its appeal – seeing mother’s and daughter’s stories take centre stage as opposed to father’s and son’s makes for a great change. Things are left fairly open ended at the finale, but in a promising and hopeful way. Despite its flaws, Unexpected Joy is a strong new effort in the musical theatre genre, and with a little refinement could become quite a gem.