Bill Russell and Janet Hood’s musical is refreshing and appropriate for 2018 thanks to its four strong female characters and songs that hit the spot emotionally.
Filled with joy, conflict and a sharp sense of humour, Unexpected Joy is the perfect way to help break down barriers in terms of attitudes towards sexuality, race and discrimination in general – told through the eyes of four extremely powerful characters.
Joy is getting married and hopes to tell her daughter Rachel and grand daughter Tamara as they pay her a visit – but she is worried because she is getting married to Lou – a woman who has strong opinions about her daughter’s husband who preaches against a number of issues including homosexuality. But this isn’t the only source of conflict as relationship between Rachel and Tamara becomes increasingly fractious.
But thanks to Bill Russell and Janet Hood’s refreshing and heartfelt music and lyrics, what actually brings all of the characters together is the power of song. ‘You Are My Worst Nightmare’ for example brilliantly highlights the various points of views of Rachel (Jodie Jacobs) and Lou (Melanie Marshall) and prejudice that exists. In contrast to this, ‘What a Woman Can Do’ deserves to become a new female anthem with its strong message and the positivity that comes through consistently within it.
In Amy Anders Corcoran’s production, while the conflict and resentment from the four characters builds up to an intense finale, it still has plenty of warmth and sincerity about it that makes all of the characters relatable in some form. But it is also the way that she has been able to draw the songs with the story together to great effect, ensuring that the audience that the way that the characters can best express themselves so fully is through song – it feels seamless and smooth.
This is helped by the four powerful performances from the cast of four who keep the audience fully invested in the characters and how they develop through the story. Holding the whole thing together is Janet Fullerlove as Joy – on the surface a laid back and loving grandmother but underneath consistently worried about how her daughter will react to her news. It is a performance that is understated and natural – but perhaps could use a touch more conviction in places, particularly when urging Rachel to see her side.
Jodie Jacobs as Rachel is suitably rigid and brittle, simmering with unresolved issues with her mother that results in subtle put-downs and anger that bubbles over beautifully throughout her performance. Kelly Sweeney (making her professional debut) is impressively strong as Tamara, showing a maturity in her performance both vocally and characterisation that makes her charming to watch. But it is Melanie Marshall who most impresses as Lou – she deliver a supremely confident performance that is sharply witty and never holds back. Between them all there is a clear and strong bond – as heard when they all sing together on ‘Common Ground’.
In places, the book does meander slightly – particularly when it comes to Lou trying to persuade Joy to tell her daughter about their relationship – the conversation seems to go around in circles and slightly wastes time in trying to reconcile their difference of opinion too soon. By focusing heavily on that one moment it slows the pace of the rest of the story right down.
As a show, Unexpected Joy is filled with warmth and good humour but it does have a serious side about the importance of breaking down barriers and family that gets the audience thinking. It is a vibrant and lovely musical that is exactly what London needs at the moment.
By Emma Clarendon
Unexpected Joy continues to play at the Southwark Playhouse until the 29th September. For more information visit: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/unexpected-joy/