April de Angelis’ Jumpy is a strange play. At once about Hilary approaching fifty and the impending sense of a mid-life crisis that follows her around, it also follows Hilary’s relationship with her often-wayward fifteen-year-old daughter Tilly, and the accompanying dramas, struggles, and battles which seem to follow her around. Claimed to be “the funniest new play the West End has seen in ages” when it premiered in London in 2012, it comes across here as blunt, unsubtle, and coarse, and it makes for a rather long and tedious two-and-a-half hours of theatre.
But I’m not entirely sure that it should be this way. De Angelis’ writing seems to carry a weight behind it, a weight of observation and experience, and as she has stated in interviews, the play did evolve out of having a teenage daughter and being faced with similar struggles as her main character. While there are some humorous moments in the play, a lot of the play’s appeal has to do with age and experience – it is written for and with a very specific audience in mind, one that has shared the experiences of her characters, maybe not to the letter but in spirit, and the play’s reception in the Drama Theatre seems to confirm this. The youngest audience member by a considerable number of years (merely half of Hilary’s age), I found myself the only one not laughing at times, the only one not moved to applause or appreciative mumblings of approval, and I think this has to do with age and experience more than anything else.
Director Pamela Rabe keeps the text moving, makes the scene changes mobile and fluid, a baggage-carousel of automated moving beds, kitchen units, sofas, stairs, and panels which shift in and out as required. While at times a little heavy-handed, the focus is on the whole clear, although some moments tend towards being overplayed or played larger than life. Presented here by Sydney Theatre Company in a Melbourne Theatre Company production, the show feels slick but perhaps too much so – there never really feels that there is an emotional connection between any of the characters and/or the audience, they are in effect mouthpieces for de Angelis’ ideas and points of view, and in this regard the cast are all more than capable performers; I never felt that there was anything much to care about in these characters, except when Tilly’s parents and those of her boyfriend argue over who has to make a decision to keep the child Tilly is apparently pregnant with – it’s an argument we hear all too often in newspapers and media cycles today, but it doesn’t make it any less affecting in this context; if anything, it is the one truly moving and impassioned scene in the play.
As Hilary, Jane Turner (of Kath & Kim fame) spends much of the play trying to negotiate the automated furniture. While this might have been intended to appear as bewilderment, after a season in Melbourne it just looks unprofessional and amateur; there are other occasions when she seems to be playing a rather one- or two-dimensional character, a mere mouthpiece, with no emotional investment or belief in what the character stands for. In a play about ideas and fighting for something, this is not an altogether good look. As Tilly, Brenna Harding is a firebrand, but she too tends to overplay her dramatic argument scenes to the point of caricature – lots of eye rolling, slouching, hair-tossing &c. Caroline Brazier’s Bea is impassioned but volatile, indignant at the thought that her son should take responsibility for Tilly’s suspected pregnancy; John Lloyd Fillingham’s Roland is at first endearing in his squeaky appeasement, but as his character and voice continues in much the same vein for the whole performance, there isn’t terribly much to endear him by the end of the play. Laurence Boxhall’s Josh has few lines, and even then he only manages to grunt (in character), what Tilly sees in him we may never know; Tariro Mavondo’s Lyndsey is kindhearted but naïve, and there is a touching moment with her and her young child late in the second act. David Tredinnick’s Mark is Hilary’s long-suffering husband, and he makes sure we know it; though he is decent, he is not strong enough to hold his own against Tilly or Hilary. Marina Prior’s
caricature in empowerment, and even though the full-house loved her ‘routine’
at the close of act one, there never felt like there was any substance behind
it. Dylan Watson brings charm and a touch of sincerity to his Frances Cam,
but his appearance is all too brief to make much of an impact.
Michael Hankin’s moving set is a delight, and even though the ceiling seems too low, it creates a kind of focusing lens for the action and does not detract too much. Matt Scott’s lighting is rich and warm, cleverly marking spaces and moods, and his outdoors lighting on the beach reminds me of the rich colour deployed in Michael Gow’s Away. Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are functional and are incredibly effective in subtly marking shifts in the characters’ attitudes, habits, and thinking. Drew Crawford’s music sounds like a saxophone-driven riff on Michael Nyman (not a bad thing by any means), and lends the production a burst of energy in scene changes.
While I can understand not being part of the target audience, one thing that still grates about this production is the use of British accents. True, the play is British, but surely ‘teenagerness’ and ‘turning fifty’ are not exclusively British phenomena; even though a play is set in Britain and makes specific references to places in and around the Greater London area, this specificity is what makes the play universal – the fact that these things happened to British women means we can find our own points of identification with these events and draw our own parallels. The accents in Jumpy do not feel organic to the story but rather feel affected, put on, and do not come across as natural or realistic.
There should be a lot in this play to like, but at the end of the day I can only feel as though there have been several opportunities that have been passed over here. Far from making me jumpy, this play left me unaffected and restless, indifferent almost, and I’m not comfortable with that, not for a play where there is so much at stake for the characters, and so much living breathing immediate relevance to our current socio-political situation in