Review: Jumpy (Sydney Theatre Company / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 26 – May 16, 2015
Playwright: April De Angelis
Director: Pamela Rabe
Cast: Laurence Boxhall, Caroline Brazier, John Lloyd Fillingham, Brenna Harding, Tariro Mavondo, Marina Prior, David Tredinnick, Jane Turner, Dylan Watson
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
With each scene of Jumpy, pieces of furniture travel across the stage on castor wheels, moving past its protagonist Hilary. She is fifty of age, her only daughter Tilly has turned sixteen and is beginning her own sex life, and we meet them at a time when Hilary has come to realise that a period of stasis is coming to an end. Like the set that keeps rolling past, life seems to have left her behind while she dutifully plays the role of mother and wife. April De Angelis’ script is concerned with women who had grown up with second-wave feminism, particularly those from the era marked by the legacies of Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem and Helen Reddy. Idealism and militancy fades or perhaps evolves into a modernity that bears little resemblance to the dreams that were birthed, like Hilary, half a century ago. Tilly is in some ways, a disappointment for her mother. De Angelis is critical as well, of the young woman’s need to build her identity around the male gaze. She allows many of her decisions to be determined by a need for the affections of men, and the dissatisfaction she derives from those behaviour evade her self-awareness. Hilary is confounded, and we all wonder how it has come to be that a generation can grow so contrary to its parental intentions. The text does not however, go so far as to say that child-bearing is pointless (although there is a tendency to characterise some parents as being selfish and afraid of loneliness), but we are certainly encouraged to assess the choices Hilary had made for herself.

The context is simple, with a sense of the everyday found in all aspects of its plot. Characters and events are familiar, but De Angelis’ ironic humour is omnipresent. Her comedy depicts middle class existence with a healthy cynicism, and is indeed, thoroughly entertaining. Each personality’s flaws are exposed shamelessly, but the writer’s compassionate approach prevents anyone from turning into clowns or villains. In fact, we identify with all of them, and find most to be very charming. Pamela Rabe’s direction is nuanced and gentle, with no big political proclamations and few dramatic gestures. Relationships are established convincingly, and every narrative is delivered clearly to make us care, and to keep us engaged.

Star of the show, Jane Turner’s outstanding ability and likeability as one of Australia’s top comic performers is well utilised in the production. We are always on her side, and we laugh whenever she wants us to. Turner’s trademark vaudevillian style of performance keeps her at some distance from her role, but there is enough authenticity and commitment in her portrayal to keep things believable. Reasons for the production not being transposed to an Australian context is unclear, but Turner’s British accent is less than satisfactory. It is an unnatural and overly posh affectation that can be uncomfortable to hear, and slightly inappropriate for the story being told. Other cast members are more adept speech-wise, and every supporting character is colourfully performed and memorable. Hilary’s best friend Frances is played by Marina Prior whose captivating vibrancy and self-deprecating humour keep the show buoyant. The contrast, and similarities, between the two middle-aged women are fascinating to observe, and their friendship is deeply meaningful, even though other relationships are given greater weight in the text. Also impressive is Tariro Mavondo’s performance as Lyndsey, the sixteen year-old new mother who treads the fine line between ignorance and purity, spouting pearls of wisdom when least expected. A heart of gold can be tricky to inhabit, but the actor’s effortless charisma turns her character’s innocence into a thing of beauty, and poses a challenge to the way we think about teen moms.

The production is a hugely enjoyable one that keeps our attention firmly under its control. There is a mildness in tone that reflects the theme of maturation, but it finds ways to amuse us from start to end. Its message arrives in the form of questions, but it leaves answers ambiguous. Middle class lives are full of anxiety, and Jumpy shows that the state of peacefulness does not emerge spontaneously with age and happiness does not necessarily materialise upon the fulfilment of duties of one’s choosing. The show does not hold the key to peace and happiness, but it provides inspiration, or at least a reminder, that it is never too late.

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