First staged at the Royal Court in London in 2011, Jumpy is a briskly modern comedy-drama which manages to address issues head-on without being preachy or patronising. April De Angelis’s script is unapologetically funny – truly, laugh-out-loud hilarious – but through it all there’s a vein of serious intent, which is to explore what it’s like to be a middle-aged mother in the 21st century.
Hilary is 50 years old, married to the laconic Mark, has a stroppy 15-year-old daughter called Tilly, and is in a job teetering on redundancy. She has a best friend called Frances who has quite a different outlook on life to her, but nevertheless they complement one another. Jumpy is told from Hillary’s point of view, so while there are other characters with issues and problems, and opinions and disasters, it’s all seen through Hilary’s lens. This means Sara Stewart is on stage for almost every second of the play.
Stewart is simply astounding. Right from the start she manages to portray someone the audience can relate to, or at least sympathise with. Hilary is a well-written, expertly played woman with all three dimensions firmly in place: she isn’t perfect, she has her faults and her doubts, but above all she is a good person, just trying to do the best in life. Isn’t that what we all aspire to? Every good play is also a journey, and Jumpy is rich in both character and incident. Something life-changing happens to almost every character, and it’s a joy to watch how they deal with things.
Philip Wright gives a lovely, understated but clearly defined turn as Hilary’s husband Mark, a man who gives in to his daughter too often, probably just for a quiet life, but who still loves his wife, even if she seems to have fallen out of love with him. Hilary doubts her marriage, she doubts herself, she doubts her relationship with her daughter, but it’s interesting that Mark doesn’t seem to feel the same way. His jealousy when he sees family friend Roland flirting with his wife is quietly but firmly apparent.
Kerry Peers plays Hilary’s friend Frances, and it’s the sort of part an actor lives for (plus, I’d argue she’s a much better casting choice than Doon Mackichan was for the West End version). This won’t be the first time Frances is likened to Dorien Green from Birds of a Feather, but the similarity surely cannot be an accident. Frances is anxious about the ageing process, unhappy that her years as a sexually alluring, powerful woman are numbered, because she believes older women are not perceived as sexy or powerful. “This body only has a few years left in it,” she remarks, sporting a racy swimming costume which leaves very little to the imagination.
Frances represents many of the body image anxieties women have in middle age. She recognises she may not be what she once was, but refuses to let that change or suppress her desires. Why should the physical dictate a woman’s intent? If Frances wants to be sexy and let it all hang out, why shouldn’t she? This attitude is encapsulated in an eye-wateringly hilarious routine in which Frances demonstrates her burlesque dance routine. Peers is obviously having a ball here, and I sensed may have been improvising a little, which made the routine so much funnier. Let’s not beat around the bush, Frances’s burlesque routine is the comedy highlight of the entire play. You will laugh, you won’t be able to stop yourself.
Charlotte Beaumont is the über-stroppy Tilly, a stereotypical troublesome teen. She talks to her mother like she’s dirt, appears to have little respect for her, and can’t bear to spend any personal time with her. Her mother’s old, unexciting: why would she want to hang out with her and her “vagina neck”? She’s much more interested in boys and having sex, a preoccupation which has its consequences. Beaumont is fabulous in this part, and manages to work a couple of softer moments into what is a pretty unlikeable character. Her oh-so-brief interest in her mother’s scrapbook is touching, and when the proverbial hits the fan and Tilly finds she needs a mother figure at last, the melting of the iceberg between them is delightful.
In support there’s a truly excellent performance from Ciara Baxendale as Tilly’s pal Lyndsey, a girl who’s got her head screwed on a little better than Tilly and who sees life a little clearer and fairer. Lyndsey has a baby at 15, but she’s written in such a way that you do not judge her. Baxendale’s performance is sensitive and sweet, and delicately comedic too. The Saturday night dance routine she has with Beaumont is chucklesome, but it’s the moments where Lyndsey seems to come across as a better daughter to Hilary than Tilly is that really speak sense. You see that all the time, desperate mothers latching onto the friends of their children because they seem to be the only way to access their own offspring without heartache and histrionics.
Steven Elliott is great as family friend Roland, a man who journeys from entrapment to freedom through the course of the play, stopping off along the way to place temptation in Hilary’s way, while Roland’s estranged wife Bea (played by Charlotte Moore) goes from class-conscious willfulness to, well, slightly friendlier willfulness. She’s a woman who knows her head and her heart, and that heart is in the right place, even if her head may not be.
In minor but integral roles are Laurie Kynaston as Tilly’s boyfriend Josh, and Laurence Ubong Williams as the 20-year-old Cam, one of Tilly’s numerous bedfellows. Williams gives a lovely, sensitive performance as a young man well past the bad-tempered truculence of adolescence, someone with an understanding of the real world. The scenes between a near-naked Cam and a bleeding Hilary are done so well, with an enormous amount going unsaid, but understood by both characters and audience.
It’s a shame the role of Josh isn’t bigger because Kynaston is a good actor (he was marvellous in The Winslow Boy at Theatr Clwyd in 2013). While Josh’s part in proceedings is important, the fact he himself barely features – and when he does, barely speaks – seems a shame. You could almost reduce Josh to one of those invisible characters missing in action, like in Abigail’s Party, My Night with Reg and Waiting for Godot, but what Kynaston is given, he makes a good fist of.
A quick mention for designer Polly Sullivan, whose multi-level set really makes the most of the venue’s smaller Emlyn Williams Theatre. It serves as steps, a sofa, a hob, a cupboard, a table, a bed, even a beach at one point. And it’s all in the imagination, placed there by Sullivan and lighting designer James Whiteside. There’s also some lovely slow-motion movement from choreographer John Ross.
You could write thousands of words about Jumpy. It’s funny, it’s meaningful, it resonates. It isn’t so much a feminist play as a play about feminism. Hilary and Frances reminisce about the time they fought as a gender with principles at Greenham Common, but each woman has processed that time very differently. Jumpy is a play about what it means to be a woman in the modern age; not just a fiftysomething, but a teenager too, with all the social pressures that come with that.
And it’s funny. Very, very funny. You’re really missing out if you don’t go and see it.
Jumpy is at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, until April 2nd 2016.