Jumpy - Review by Simon Jenner

‘You’re having some kind of crisis. It’s called turning fifty. You must be having it too.’ So says best friend actor Frances to anxious Hilary, fellow former Greenham Common feminist turning over a dying marriage with reading out Great Expectations to snoring Mark whilst her own literacy job’s under the axe; and a teen daughter Tilly she can’t believe she’s exhorting to wear more clothes. Where did her radicalism go? Showing sisterhood photos to Tilly who’s not heard of Margaret Thatcher confines you to pre-history. Frances isn’t going without a sexual claw-back. Why doesn’t Hilary?

April de Angelis is known for period plays about theatre itself, the Restoration Playhouse Creatures from 1994, featured by Brighton Little in 2015; or in 2002 A Laughing Matter set in Garrick’s world. Her range is wide though and Jumpy premiered curiously at the Royal Court in October 2011 at a time when such comedies were (briefly) permissible there again.

It was a hit – most who saw it felt in the buzz of something special. Starring Tamsin Grieg and directed by Nina Raine (now famous for Tribes and particularly Consent) it soon transferred to wide acclaim to the Duke of York’s in August 2012. Greig often combines a sassy vulnerability and hapless accidie: tough but slapstick-prone. Hilary the protagonist turning fifty gloves her and Sharon Drain, directed here by Diane Robinson, has roomy shoes to fill.

It’s a surprisingly long evening too in the attractive Upstairs Main. It’s not a very long play per se. There’s a pace set in frequent lights-down for de Angelis’s many scenes. So the hyper-efficient stage team move props around they’d have found easier if they could see.

Simon Glazier and team’s superb set is supremely adaptable too: white sofa, white and chrome bar stools, cocktail bar, kitchen tops and furnishing stage right; with moveable white cube screens with pictures (which change to seascapes on a horrendous Norfolk boarding-house trip), one of which reveals a double bed and bedroom; but otherwise does service as a wall. With brief service downstage as a Norfolk beach, lit by Strat Mastoris and his team (with felicitous use of individual lamps), Adam Hewitt’s sound and composition featuring Kate Bush Donna Summer and his own work, and Maisie Wilkins’ nearly-now costumery, this is a sumptuous production to lose yourself in.

Jumpy’s title might suggest that turning-fifty angst, as well as turning-sexually-active. Like ‘Rosebud’ though in Citizen Kane there’s a reveal right at the end. In fact critiques of Jumpy itself range from suggestions by director Carole Bremson that it’s a pilot for Friday Night Dinners (also starring Greig) whose frequent set-changes and multi-stranded plot points prove ideal for TV; to critic Michael Billington feeling that behind its apparent modernity and up-to-date plotting it has a ‘strong whiff’ of the old debutante Shaftsbury Avenue comedies the Royal Court seemingly banished forever (The Theatre Royal Brighton ran Douglas-Home’s The Reluctant Debutante as late as April 2009).

Jumpy can survive all this triumphantly, and so can this production. De Angelis is both funny and flinchingly wise about ageing, teen-parenthood, late sexual choices and the imbecility of men. There’s no villain here, though Bea the HSBC-drone mother of Tilly’s squeeze Josh runs that term pretty close. No-one generates a disaster, and perhaps there’s no essential crisis, though the one we get is one of the most screamingly funny pieces of comic timing I’ve seen and that includes all Ayckbourn. The finale’s a curious diminuendo, and it’s difficult not to feel it’s the end of an episode that might later be resumed. De Angelis, a brilliant comic writer, revels in circularity in her storyline; perhaps life demands something slightly rougher.

For de Angelis’ play is gentle and held aloft by language. Drain’s Hilary juggles the rising tensions of Tilly and Josh, Tilly’s falling pregnant just like her hapless friend Lyndsey, parleys with Josh’s parents about how to handle this and the rare treat of being hit on by Josh’s father, actor Roland. Egged on by Frances who’s irritated Roland isn’t hitting on her after wife Bea leaves him, Hilary even tries some burlesque maid-up dancing when they’re alone together. Frances though tries it on all the assembled adults. Just as a crisis hits. Rather in the manner of the man who asks a new widow: ‘But apart from the assassination, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?’

Drain makes a fine wry Hilary, strong on that mix of strength and vulnerability grounded in guilt and being unloved herself by a chilly mother. Drain makes Hilary demonstrably more awkward than the over-fluent 1970s-bound Frances, who has all the moves and sexual confidence but an obliviousness to boundaries, taste, or anything remotely to do with passing forty. She’s the friend you need, despite managing to fall out repeatedly with Hilary who just can’t take her heedlessness any more. Frances reflects even Kim Cattrall could do with a jaw firming. Hilary reflects on Tilly scoffing at her ‘vagina neck’. Sandie Armstrong’s Frances is superb: consummate comic timing, absolutely assured in her absurdity. She lights each of her scenes with pink neon.

Maya Bowles is a two-and-a-half-hour scowl of lanky, pouty peer-consciousness. Oh and there’s sex. There is a streak of tenderness in Tilly, underneath the bluster, and Bowles mines it in a brief clinch with Drain’s Hilary. This Tilly’s perpetually wired. Bowles might perhaps relax into a touch more amplitude, but it’s difficult from de Angelis’ text to read more tenderness; it’s there flickering occasionally between the lines.

Simon Hudson’s Roland is another stand-out. Like Frances he’s self-involved, narcissistic, quickly empathic and unlike Frances somewhat fickle. We close Act One with Hilary’s answering him snog for snog. Yet there’s the small matter of his being frightened off by a bang. You feel he doesn’t deserve Hilary, but he’s not the only man around her.

I can’t quite believe in Roland’s marriage to Liz Ryder Weldon’s Bea though. Or that, on this interesting take on her, she’d be having affairs. Her great moments are about callously defending Josh, ensuring he’s not exposed to all this sordidness over pregnancy, since Tilly and her friend Lyndsey are toast anyway – there’s a breathtaking moment when Bea implies Lyndsey’s barely human, to the astonishment of everyone else. But a young man has so much potential. Ryder Weldon’s very good as a chilly HSBC bean counter though I can’t see why on this evidence she and the charismatic feckless Roland ever married. There’s no soured chemistry, no history, just contained hostility.

Ella Verity’s Lyndsey is a joy. It takes talent to render such a hopeless daffy idiot so truthfully on stage without guying her and indeed investing her with some dignity and pathos. Verity manages to elicit sympathy for her character; it’s winning and rather special.

Mark Lester’s Mark puts in a sterling performance as the intermittently sensible Mark. It’s not a role allowing much beyond a vestigial decency, a certain common sense. Lester does what he can whilst the dramatist’s attention is elsewhere.

Tom Gould’s Josh again has less to do, but he’s bright, attentive, looks a match for Tilly, exuding a certain grace and charm to explain her sassier character’s attraction to him in the first place.

Simone Severini’s Cam though is a different matter. He has a chance to erect something of himself and he takes this beautifully, in scenes where he attends the grazed Hilary’s leg, revealing how it reminds him of something he did for his mother who unlike Hilary didn’t survive a bicycle crash. The chemistry’s simmering. You will Hilary to go for joy. Her husband’s moved out, Roland flim-flams with great panache. In fact de Angelis has a few tricks even Frances wouldn’t credit. It’s one reason you must see this play.

All these charms wind up to a perfect storm. Whilst the scene-changes with lights over-dimmed slow down the action a little (it will probably have speeded up by the time you see it) it’s a play that can’t hang fire. It’s one too where you begin to wonder how life, not the playwright, will treat these playhouse creatures. Their residual existence beyond the play confirms de Angelis has hit a true vein. I just wonder at the forced circularity, the feeling that this would make a superbly-televised experience. Meanwhile, you must see this delirious state-of-the-pause play.

Review by Simon Jenner - First published - fringereview.co.uk