The family unit has been a mainstay of British new writing in recent years as many of its best new plays pick at inter-generational tensions. They surface again in Sarah Wooley’s touching portrait of a fresh widow enjoying a new lease of life, in spite of familial resentment and the financial crisis. Thanks to Maureen Lipman’s superbly tender performance as Joyce, delicate with comic flourishes, it remains quietly uplifting even though Wooley finally strays into mawkishness.
After 40 years of marriage and making do, Joyce sits silently at her husband’s wake as her elderly mother blusters on. Before long, she’s bought herself a bright red designer coat and taken up day-tripping into London to sample assorted cultural delights. She visits its opera houses, walks its parks and stumbles inadvertently into a tawdry strip pubs, where she strikes up an unlikely but genuine friendship with a young dancer named Candy (Nadia Clifford).
As Joyce revels in each fresh possibility and tiny pleasure, Lipman wears a constant pursed smile as if always restraining some beaming explosion of delight, and bristles with adrenal excitement at every flirtatious encounter en route. She plays the psychology of newfound freedom with such clarity — bubbling with giddiness as any initial, ingrained guilt evaporates — that you never once begrudge Joyce her self-indulgences.
That’s despite her neglect of her increasingly frail, disoriented mother and reluctance to bail out demanding daughter Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman), who falls victim to the swelling financial crisis. Pregnant with her third child at 42, Fiona’s duplex is repossessed as her immature husband (Timothy Watson) slouches through unemployment. Afterwards, she attempts to bulldoze her way into Joyce’s home.
Wooley lays bare the differences in attitudes between three generations in Fiona’s reckless consumption, Pearl’s hoarding and Joyce’s careful frugality. There’s a cycle of realism and dreaminess at play, suggesting children rebel against parents and end up replicating the generation above.
Wooley’s dialogue is crisp and psychologically astute, particularly with its needling undercurrents. But she overcooks proceedings at the last by drudging up an unnecessary — not to mention hackneyed — past trauma to explain Joyce’s subservience. She also takes a patronizing view of her male characters, who are, without exception, childish and sex-obsessed.
For all its emotional suppleness, the production from director Terry Johnson (“La Cage aux Folles”) is on the sluggish side, a fact not helped by Tim Shortall’s design, which hauls on new furniture for each scene and conveys location with projections. Nonetheless, some individual scenes are delightful as Lipman mines the inner sketch from every scenario without sacrificing truthfulness.
Helen Ryan matches Lipman for characterful nuance as the domineering Pearl, spluttering out her consonants like a backfiring exhaust pipe. Oberman makes a suitably grating daughter, blind to her own incessant selfishness, and Nadia Clifford is endearingly bubbly as Candy, particular when taking tea at the Ritz with a woman three times her age.