What Old Money almost succeeds in doing is taking old tropes and making them new. With a cast of walking clichés (repressed housewife, selfish daughter, senile granny, tart-with-a-heart), Sarah Woolley’s play could so easily have fallen flat. Fortunately, Woolley is a skillful enough writer to wring something new out of these well-worn characters, and it’s a pretty good show. There are some leaps (would the newly widowed housewife really go to a strip club?), but the brilliant cast keep it all ticking over, and make it easy to ignore some of the sightly less credible scenes.
Maureen Lipman as the put-upon Joyce, who finally throws off the shackles of expectation, respectability and age, is superb. She is so tightly wound you expect her to explode at any moment. When she does, it’s delicious. The play centres around the mother/daughter relationships of Joyce and her mother Pearl (a caustic Helen Ryan) and her daughter Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman). Oberman is fantastic as the selfish daughter juggling two kids, an unexpected pregnancy and a feckless husband, and the scenes between Lipman and Oberman are supremely, wonderfully tense. Every raised eyebrow is fraught with meaning.
That said, Terry Johnson’s direction relies a little too heavily on knowing looks; every scene ends with two characters looking at each other significantly, followed by a black-out. John Leonard’s sound design was too syrupy for me, pushing well-written scenes into sentimentality. However, Lipman, Oberman and Nadia Clifford (as stripper Candy) are such a formidable team that the odd bit of stilted dialogue or one too many sweeping violin passages melts away. You cannot help but believe that the three women have known each other all their lives, and as secrets come out and relationships are examined, some of the bickering and sniping is uncomfortably familiar.
The show is touching and funny, and occasionally wise. Some of the encounters are a bit of a stretch for the imagination, but Lipman is more than capable of making you invest in her character – we want Joyce to escape her humdrum life and have some fun. Every minor triumph – a red coat! – is a cause for celebration. Yes, the ending is a bit silly, and yes, it’s hard to believe that a stripper would befriend the eccentric older lady who pops into her pub, but it’s fun. Woolley’s characters are not straightforward; they are selfish, capricious, cruel, loving, real. And that makes it well worth watching.
Old Money is at Hampstead Theatre until 12 January. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website.