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28 October 2011updated 27 Sep 2015 4:03am

Theatre review: Washed up on the sands of middle-age

Tamsin Greig steals the show at the Royal Court.

By Gina Allum

Tamsin Greig plays to a packed, appreciative house at the Royal Court theatre as she headlines in Jumpy, April de Angelis’s new play. And what an enjoyable show it is: a clear-sighted, wry look at what life is like if you’re really old, like fifty; with punchlines that knock the air out of you.

Greig plays Hilary, who has hit the sands of middle-age, whose marriage is welded together by habit and who is variously in a state of perplexity and attritional warfare with her teenage daughter Tilly (a spiky, fragile Bel Powley). This play belongs to the not-yet-oldies. It’s a hymn to the female body in flux, one that’s at the point of deliquescing into old age. Hilary’s best friend Frances – played with delicious abandon by Doon Mackichan – calculates that “I’ve only got this body for another five years.” The Greenham women are holding it together, but only just.

It’s Greig’s night. Under Nina Raine’s lively direction she warms the chill set with her presence: a fiddle with her cardie here, a tiny pause in her delivery there; exquisite touches. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed, however, when I discovered that Greig is some way off turning 50 herself: she’s récolte 1967. It seems to me to show bad faith, a lethal doubt in the whole enterprise, to cast younger models in such a role. Presumably all the 50-somethings are busy elsewhere playing sexagenarians.

The script at times strays into sitcom territory: a sterile, no-through-road style which in which characters are written off as fast as they’re written in. The teen girls, in particular, are sometimes set up for big and easy laughs. When Tilly splits up with boyfriend Josh, she wails that “his name is all over my Humanities folder!” Her friend Lyndsey makes a quite literally sidesplitting entrance, with her baby bump barely covered by a Lycra cummerbund of a skirt. Baby’s blessed father is no longer with us, having been stabbed at a Walthamstow bus stop. Later, referencing the movie The Road, Lyndsey says of her newborn offspring “If anyone ate Dayne I’d go mental.”

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Lizzie Clachan’s set works against the play’s slightly retro, stuck-in-the-drawing room scenario. It is entirely white, minimal, suggesting at once a trendy North London Victorian conversion and the smooth blankness of a mausoleum. Everything of colour, everything of interest, is jammed away inside concealed cupboards.

The two older woman bicker and laugh over the post-feminist pickings of their lives. “Being a woman, getting old, is a disaster,” declares Frances as they mainline white wine. “The best we can expect of life now is avoiding the worst.” In many ways the centrepiece of the show is her uproarious burlesque routine, designed to kickstart her flagging acting career, and which Mackichan turns into a clowning triumph. There are tassels. There are balloons. There are – please, no – bits of fabric to which she adds, um, the scent of a woman. “I control and playfully manipulate the gaze,” she claims at the finish – a farcical crock of pomo (porno) thinking.

All the while the various teenagers in the show are painfully, insouciantly flaunting the youth that has been lost. When Hilary gets briefly involved with Josh’s dad, Roland, he wheedles “I wanted to – feel like I’m 15 again.” Roland – a lightly oleaginous Richard Lintern – is eventually to find Buddhism, and Birkenstocks, instead. Hilary’s determined, right-thinking liberalism is put to the test by her daughter’s confronting sexuality; gender difference in the Facebook generation is kicked about playfully in conversations she has with Roland and his clenched wife.

When Hilary points out the thousands of airbrushed, sexualised images of women pumped out every day, oily Roland concurs. “That is awful. Unless you’re a bloke.”
“Jumpy” runs at the Royal Courth Theatre, London SW1 until 19 November

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