Unexpected Joy – Southwark Playhouse until 29th September

★★★

Review by Sarah Tinsley

From the moment a smock-dressed lady ambles on stage, the cramped space in South London erupts into a burst of foot-tapping tunes. What it lacks in poignant moments, Unexpected Joy makes up for it with a rousing chorus of tunes and some impressive vocal feats.

Joy is your typical (perhaps too typical) ageing hippie. In between organising a memorial concert for her late husband, she’s finding her feet in new love and attempting to reconcile with her daughter. Only there’s one problem. She’s in love with a woman, and her daughter is married to a fundamentalist televangelist. When her rebellious teen granddaughter joins the show, along with her lover Lou, it’s certain that sparks will fly. There are some memorable performances and touching scenes, but it does feel like this show never quite has the guts to really address the issues it raises.

Photo Credit Pamela Raith

The dialogue is punchy and witty, especially when in the hands of Lou, played wonderfully by Melanie Marshall. We find a surprising affinity with all of the characters, even Rachel, played by Jodie Jacobs, although it’s hard to stay with a character who repeatedly condemns homosexuality and Jews. A little more character development would have given us more of an excuse to like her. It was a bold move to give her most of the songs, although she does find some redemption in her role as a mother. Vocally, Jodie Jacobs is by far the strongest performer and performs impressive feats with her vocal range and tone. Spine-tingling stuff.

The angsty teen is played by Kelly Sweeney, whose portrayal of the apparently shy but secretly bold teen is charming, set off by stunning vocal talent. The title character (played by Janet Fullerlove) is the most endearing, although she is overshadowed by the rest of the cast in terms of her voice.

Photo Credit Pamela Raith

We and the cast are all united by song. There are touching moments in ‘Before You Arrive,’ some empowering beats in ‘What a Woman Can Do’ and clever harmony in ‘Common Ground.’ We are taken on an eclectic journey of sound through a variety of styles and genres.

It’s clear that the lyrics and script by Bill Russell wants us to leave feeling hope for the future, but it’s a shame he doesn’t make his characters a little more rounded and his language a little more current. Janet Hood’s music is what provides the real joy in this show, and will leave you feeling thankful for the music.

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