Gerry’s Studio, Theatre Royal Stratford East
Reviewed – 26th October 2017
“a play that is unique and important yet totally unpretentious”
Performed by a cast of seven, some of whom identify as having learning disabilities, Joy is a tale of the struggle for independence and the difficulty of letting go. It is about family and friendship and allowing people to just be who they are. Stephanie Martin’s script is beautifully crafted, unsentimental and real and there are some genuinely hilarious moments, one of which involves a banana. There is no tokenism here, no sense of inequality among the cast. Each and every one of the actors delivers, weaving a story that centres on one young woman’s desire to have the life she wants.
Imogen Roberts is a delight as Joy and it is a rare thing to see a person with learning disabilities presented as a fully rounded character who falls in love, is loved in return, makes friendships independently, gets drunk with her sister and stands up for what she wants. Her sister, Mary, is played by Rachel Bright, best known for playing Poppy Meadow in Eastenders. Mary loves spending time with Joy and wants her to be able to grow up and build a life for herself. But even while hanging out in the bedroom talking about boys, dancing like crazy and slugging beer, she is the responsible sister who has cared for Joy since their mother left them years ago. The two are a fantastically fun and well matched pair and the affection between them is palpable.
Danny Scheinmann plays John, the girls’ father. He is terrified of anything happening to Joy. He wants her to be safe and doesn’t like her having a relationship with Paul, played by Deen Hallisey. He also disapproves of Joy’s new friendship with Sue, played by Kate Lynn Evans, a librarian who is trapped in a cold marriage. We see Joy listening to Sue’s problems, helping the much older woman and generally enjoying her company. It is an unlikely friendship, but it works. Paul is a spoken word artist, a gentle young man, but will Joy’s father allow the relationship to continue? Scheinmann, Evans and Hallisey represent different poles in Joy’s life, Scheinmann’s frightened anger, Evan’s wonderful neuroticism and Hallisey’s quiet passion are the background to her optimism and determination and allow her to demonstrate different types of love and caring. It’s all beautifully done.
Running parallel to this contemporary tale is the story of two young sisters from the Victorian age. Joy is reading about a young woman from 1871, and sees her in her daydreams. Mabel is like Joy and her sister Maud is the equivalent of Mary, a young woman who loves her sister deeply and wants the best for her. They walk for days to get to an enlightened hospital where ‘people like Mabel’ are cared for with kindness. Maud’s care for her sister and her determination are sensitively portrayed by E J Martin and Mabel’s strength of character, occasional stubbornness and love for her sister are brought vividly to life by Stephanie Newman. After the show I found myself wondering what the rehearsal process had been like for the two pairs of sisters. The onstage relationships were strong and nuanced, there was a sense of real delight in each other’s company and genuine mutuality.
Carla Goodman’s production design is simple and effective. Chalk drawings on the back wall are completed by the cast to indicate changes of location, something I had not seen before and which works beautifully. Melanie Fullbrook directs with sensitivity and a lovely comic touch, weaving the story in a way that never jars and where both time periods co-exist with ease.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but there were tears in the audience at the end. Happy tears. If you want to see a play that is unique and important yet totally unpretentious, a play that will move you and make you laugh out loud, go and see this.
Reviewed by Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Mathew Foster
is at Gerry’s Studio, Theatre Royal Stratford East until 4th November