Mamma Mia! meets Waiting for Godot; the glamour and pop soundtrack reminiscent of ABBA, intermingles with harmonies consisting of major thirds and combining with a script as anti-climactic as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This could be one way of describing Bill Russell and Janet Hood’s Unexpected Joy at the Southwark Playhouse.
A family of women from three generations meet after an inexplicit period of time and realise they have less in common than they thought. Granddaughter Tamara (Kelly Sweeney) cannot wait to escape the claustrophobic religious rules of her mother Rachel (Jodie Jacobs), whilst her Grandmother (Janet Fullerlove) pushes her to “live in the moment”. Unexpected Joy follows a heavy argument of nature and nurture and how we negotiate our own experiences and manipulate those of our children. How do we compromise on religious and moral beliefs with those that we love most? What does it take to undermine a family’s relationship when such personal matters are at stake?
In some ways similar to Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s musical Fun Home, Unexpected Joy’s protagonists; gay couple Lou (Melanie Marshall) and Joy, have invited Joy’s daughter and granddaughter to a memorial for Joy’s ex-husband, which consists of a concert of the songs Joy and Jump released together. However, the jubilation they expect for their wedding, which is supposed to take place the very next day, does not create the atmosphere they would have dreamed of.
Hood’s music resonates on a simple level with little contrast between musical interludes. The on-stage band seems to be grooving to a similar if not repetitive rhythm as Musical Director Gareth Bretherton throughout the whole story, no matter the highs or lows in the dynamic. Similarly, Russell’s text seems to be long-winded and, in retrospect, unengaged with the high-stake political and social judgement at hand. The story struggles to create the energy, and more importantly; the tension required to have us on the edge of our seats.
Despite Jane Deitch’s incredibly believable casting, the connection to the characters seems lacking from time to time. At times, Amy Anders Corcoran’s direction of Sweeney’s 18-year-old rebellious wannabe singer appears oddly prepubescent, whereas Marshall’s hard nut successful singer comes across as a somewhat jester, with gags breaking the intimacy of her connection with the other actors on stage. Nonetheless, the vocal abilities of both actors are impressive, particularly Sweeney who has a transformational performance since appearing in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Working for her graduate show at Royal Academy of Music. Fullerlove, on the other hand, struggles vocally and her storytelling finds little dynamic with a limited character journey from start to end.
For a story as important to tell as the liberalisation of gay rights, I am disappointed by the immediacy of the communication between the spectators and the performers. With opportunities to make us feel things from human beings to human beings; with a powerful story of love and restriction, I had hoped for the actors to grab at every chance to share the desperation directly with the audience, but instead the text feels self-indulgent. At times, I found myself wondering ‘why is that actor’s eyes closed when they could be sharing the powerful situation directly with the audience who are only a few feet away from?’
Unfortunately, the only joy I experienced is when the granddaughter receives her liberation and the only unexpected event is the unnecessary bursts of light that are supposedly to aid the under-energised storytelling. At times told well, Unexpected Joy is an important story.
Unexpected Joy is playing Southwark Playhouse until 29 September. For further information and tickets, click here.