Warm lights present Joy’s world to the audience in Gerry’s Studio at Theatre Royal Stratford East. The sisters, Joy (Imogen Roberts) and Mary (Rachel Bright), enter the stage together, facing the audience and taking them on a journey of young women. Joy is not about disability and Joy isn’t defined by her disability either. Instead, it is a portrayal of Joy and how she faces the world with all its possibilities and limitations and the character is remarkable because of her genuine joy, her fearless curiosity and her dream of autonomy.

Joy exudes positivity and dreams of exploring the world. She works part-time in a pub and is happy with her boyfriend Paul (Deen Hallisey), a spoken word artist, with whom she enjoys first love’s clumsy and honest intimacy. Joy has a lot of fun, but also shows her serious side in conversations with her sister. Their dad John (Danny Scheinmann) is concerned about Joy’s ambitions and to keep his family safe, he created a sanctuary to exclude all possible intruders when the girls were young. The family’s little world is threatened by Sue (Kate Lynn Evans), a new friend of Joy’s who becomes an inspiration for Joy to pursue an independent life.

The present is blended with Joy’s daydreams about two sisters in London in 1871, which mirrors and merges with the sister’s relationship. We find out that this is Joy’s Art project for College, an investigation into people like her in the Victorian era. The other sisters are Maud (EJ Martin) and Mabel (Stephanie Newman) also share an indestructible bond and are trying to survive in a gloomy London as they fight for a new, safe home. Nevertheless, autonomy and freedom are valued more than caution and withdrawal from the outside world. “I am not a pet. I am just me”, is a message not only to the world, but also for the closest people in their lives.

The stage is nearly empty; except for a few stools and white contours on the black floor and walls that label objects. The story unfolds and immerses the audience into Joy’s daily life, her reality and her imagination. Changes of locations are suggested by dimmed light and by the performers finishing the contours of the objects. The set contributes to a juxtaposition of atmospheres: Joy’s bedroom is an embodiment of intimacy with her sister while they dance and talking about love and sex, the library is a place of warmth when Joy meets Sue, the living room is a battlefield and place of reunion and a swimming-pool as place to defeat phobias and anxieties.

The performance of the cast is outstanding and, thus, the appreciation and applause is warm, enthusiastic and celebratory. Roberts shines as heroine Joy and Hallisey and Newman master their stage debut with bravura. The embodiment of the characters is a work of art and the authenticity is disarming.

Stephanie Martin’s debut full-length play is about the connections we create in our lives, about how we lose people and find them again. It is about letting go and letting in and it is about taking risks and dreaming big. It is also a portrayal of how difficult and dark life can get and it discusses loss, fear and loneliness. But it does not dwell in the shadows. It shows light in the dark as Maude projects onto the new home for Mabel. Differences will be bridged or celebrated; loneliness admitted and cured; fear faced and lived. Labels will be defeated.

Joy is a real joy. It touches and warms the heart. The play does not defend an educational positioning, but rather offers an immersion into coming-of-age, its challenges and possibilities for the individual and the family which works to spark discussions and reflections. Come and join Joy!

Joy is playing at Gerry’s Studio until November 4 2017.

Photo: Matthew Foster