(This is the second of a four-part look at West End shows that may ultimately move to Broadway.)
I can’t imagine turning 50 is a light experience for anyone, no matter how together his or her life seems to be; the age comes with attendant social checkmarks (not to mention healthcare milestones). One hopes that it is less of a roller coaster for the average adult than it is for Hilary (Tamsin Greig), the married north London mother to a teenage daughter in April de Angelis’ Jumpy, a promising play that works better as a slender character study than it does as what it purports itself to be: an amusing mother-daughter tale.
In fact, there are several women worth pointing out working on Jumpy: de Angelis, who finds great humor in Hilary’s mid-life growing pains and her awkward stumbles toward reclaiming a life for herself; Greig (best known stateside for her performance on Showtime’s “Episodes”), who flawlessly embodies a flailing, at-wit’s-end Hilary; Nina Raine (herself a playwright, currently enjoying a thriving run of her show, Tribes, in New York), a director with a tremendous feel for the rhythms of comedy born of emotional turmoil; and even Doon Mackichan, as the effervescent yang to Hilary’s yin, is a knockout riot. Lizzie Clachan’s design, sterile until it needs a dash of life thrown in, is also apt.
But oddly enough, one female who doesn’t rise to this list of superlatives is a shrill Bel Powley as Tilly, Hilary’s volatile, disrespectful, sexually aggressive teen daughter. While Jumpy initially posits itself as a story of the two of them forced to come to terms and bridge the generation gap (suggesting an interesting cross-breed of Terms of Endearment and Gilmore girls), de Angelis crafts a more crowded second act in which Tilly stomps in and out but Hilary remains, almost Job-like, forced to react to a whirlwind of changes in her life. (And cleverly, like in a modern Virginia Woolf piece, de Angelis place the capital-letter events, like divorces, separations, pregnancies and reconciliations happen in brackets, between scenes, so as to focus on character over plot.)
That Jumpy withstands Tilly’s absences so well is both a credit and a demerit. Ideally, Jumpy shouldn’t be such a vehicle for Greig; rather, it should play as a bicycle built for two, allowing the actresses playing both mother and daughter to shine. We don’t learn as much about the daughter’s inner life – her fears, her skills, her motivations – as we should. A late scene suggests a sensitive side to Tilly, but neither the play nor performer does anything to telegraph that, leading to a two-dimensional performance.
Greig, however, fills in the many colors of the middle-aged rainbow, as a series of changes force Hilary to question her place in the world, what she used to be, what she has given up, and who she really is. One would be forgiven for reading that last sentence and thinking Jumpy was mere melodrama; it isn’t, thanks largely to its star’s acutely tuned-in performance, whether it is measured discomfort in a playful French maid outfit or delicate romantic scenes with both Richard Lintern and Ewan Stewart (both of whom, too, are wonderful). De Angelis and Raine address sex and sexuality with an important commonsensical attitude, all the more driving home the point of Jumpy: there is plenty for adults to cry about – but here is just as much to laugh at.
Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG. Through November 3. http://jumpytheplay.com/index-jumpy.php
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