Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jumpy by April de Angelis

All photos by Brett Boardman

Jumpy by April de Angelis.  Melbourne Theatre Company production presented by Sydney Theatre Company.  Directed by Pamela Rabe; set design by Michael Hankin; costumes by Teresa Negroponte; lighting by Matt Scott; composer/sound by Drew Crawford; choreographer, Dana Jolly. 

Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, March 26 – May 16, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 30
Brenna Harding as Tilly, Jane Turner as her mother Hilary
 Surreptitiously overhearing a friendship group of over-50-somethings in the foyer at interval, I heard the keywords: ‘clever set’ and ‘annoying’.  Having read Andrew Upton’s program message – ‘On a first scan, [Jumpy] could read as a comedy of manners – neatly packaged and wrapped in a bow.  But there is subterranean life to it.  Something deeply felt that courses through the play.  In an understated, never plangent way, it speaks to the morally deracinated landscape left after years of Thatcherite economic rationalism’ – I was a bit surprised to hear the comment ‘annoying’.

But by the end of the second half, I saw the connection between ‘clever set’ and ‘annoying’.  The depth of feeling (and political import) that Upton had spruiked just didn’t happen.  The script just doesn’t support his description and the clever set becomes part of the gimmickry used to create laughter to cover the weakness in the writing.

Of course, being a lot over 50 myself, I have to record that another surreptitiously overheard comment after the show from an over-20-something to her (male) friend, who had not seen the show, was that Jumpy is ‘very funny’.  So I must be careful not to be a mere grumpy old male.

David Tredinnick as husband Mark, Jane Turner as Hilary

Daughter Tilly and mother Hilary
Brenna Harding and Jane Turner

Hilary, Tilly and teenage mother Lyndsey
Jane Turner, Brenna Harding and Tariro Mavondo

I respect Pamela Rabe’s work as director particularly for her production of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) [reviewed on this blog June 8, 2011].  Now I can respect her work again, for escaping from the static set and what looks more or less like stand-up comedy of the London Duke of York’s 2012 production [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV9_9AXaGaA]. 

Cleverly using the stage revolve, which transports items of the set, including actors, in from stage left and out on stage right, in front of a blank wall with sections which open and close to reveal glimpses of the staircase up (to an unseen but heard bedroom), Rabe has represented the ‘progress’ of Hilary’s life.  Jane Turner takes all the opportunities to extract a laugh as the movement of the floor or the closing of a gap catches her by surprise.

This literally dynamic set also works well to solve the problem of the Drama Theatre’s impossibly wide letter-box shaped stage.  Jorn Utzon surely must still be turning in his grave at this abomination.

Caroline Brazier as Bea, Tariro Mavondo as Lyndsey, Jane Turner as Hilary

Roland, technically incompetent.
John Lloyd Fillingham as Bea's husband and Josh's father Roland
with Mark's wife Hilary (Jane Turner)
after Hilary has opened and lit the barbecue

Rabe’s casting is also a great success.  Her Tilly (Hilary’s rebellious daughter) is played by Brenna Harding as the worst up-to-date 15 to 16-year-old city sophisticate pushing the envelope in every direction.  It takes a very real near death experience to bring her down.  Though the playscript in the end takes a sentimental rom-com decision to reconcile both Tilly and husband Mark (David Tredinnick) with Hilary, Brenna and Jane manage their necessary hug without the huge sense of relief which would suggest that all will be OK between them forever, now.  The script could easily have led in that direction.  The title ‘Jumpy’ was enough to make me suspicious.

But even Rabe could not make the final scene, Hilary and Mark back in bed together again, more than a device on the part of the author to end the ‘comedy of manners – neatly packaged and wrapped in a bow’.  Essentially, de Angelis’s script raises every issue from middle-class unemployment at 50, teenagers whose idea of fun brings them up against real danger, what happened to classic feminism (and nuclear disarmament), and teenagers having babies (with an excellent performance by Tariro Mavondo as Lyndsey), to male failure.  Apart from husband Mark, all the other men in Tilly’s and Hilary’s life (Josh, Roland and Cam – played by Laurence Boxhall, John Lloyd Fillingham and Dylan Watson respectively) appear, cause disaster or near disaster, can’t face the consequences of their actions, and disappear from the action.

Marina Prior as Frances demonstrating her burlesque act
to Tilly (Brenna Harding) and Mark (David Tredinnick)

Is this meant to be merely amusing, a damning indictment of men, or a statement that this is just how life is – a series of unpredictable comings and goings?  Any of these could be a reasonable theme, but the play doesn’t deal with the issues it raises.  Despite what Andrew Upton wrote, Thatcher doesn’t get a direct mention (though David Cameron gets a throw-away one-liner), Hilary’s university-days brief fling at Greenham Common gets a little bit of development in talk with her long-time girlfriend Frances (played wildly – very funnily – by Marina Prior), social one-up-womanship gets a run with Josh’s mother, Bea (played magnificently bitchily by Caroline Brazier) – but the issue gets lost when Tilley’s late period and the need for an abortion (which Bea insists upon to protect her son) turns out to be a false alarm.  Isn’t Tilley lucky, eh?

So I can’t disagree with the young woman who found the play ‘very funny’, more so in the second half, and I certainly can’t complain about the quality of the acting and the ‘clever set’, but I have ended up feeling that the play was annoying because the writing opens up issues, most of which are not properly developed, while the conclusion seems to say that a sensible woman of 50 with a daughter on the cusp of adulthood should settle back into a conventional way of life basically for safety and rather boring security (with a husband who has managed to keep his job, apparently).

Not only Andrew Upton’s introduction led me to expect more, but so did the lengthy essays in the program (‘Common Cause’ detailing the 1981 Greenham Common protests against the cruise missile deployment; ‘Midlife’ about the ‘middle years, years of accelerating decline'; ‘Motherly Instincts’ (by Wendy Zukerman – the only piece with an acknowledged author) which discusses Freud, Darwin and a number of other developmental psychology authors; and ‘Nostalgia’ which concludes Meanwhile, our present days move out of our control into a future that’s always in doubt.  Nostalgia, according to all the research, is an anchor we throw out on this uncertain tide.

Nostalgia doesn’t seem all that funny; nor does the conclusion to Zukerman’s piece: It looks like we will not truly unravel whether there is a special bond between mothers and daughters until scientists conduct large studies using stay-at-home fathers, who spend more time with their girls than the mothers.  Only then will we know if humans are just like emus and titi monkeys.  Until then, we can thank our lucky stars that Freud is no longer interpreting the dreams of young women and their jewel-boxes.

But at least there’s some guts there, that unfortunately is not manifest in de Angelis’s playscript.  Maybe emus and titi monkeys may have introduced some satire to sustain the comedy.
Tilly and Hilary: reconciliation
Brenna Harding and Jane Turner
Jane Turner as Hilary