Fifty is not as old as it used to be; indeed if April De Angelis’ depiction of mid-late-life womanhood is anything to go by, it’s just as confusing as fifteen ever was. Hilary’s is a generation freshly approaching pasture, dealing with job insecurity in the economic downturn, bored of her solid husband Mark and fending-off the lank advances of actor friend Roland, her relationship with her gyaldem daughter Tilly is as estranged as her relationship with best friend and ludicrous post-feminist Frances is deranged. This bright and crackling portrait of middle-age is forcefully funny and almost suspiciously perky. Nina Raine’s gimlet eyed and flinty cool production lends the air of a play that is dabbling in substances more controlled than the wine that Hilary quaffs throughout.
Like a paperweight on the occasional glibness of the script rest a number of superb comic performances. Richard Lintern as the weedily needy actor Roland brings expert timing to a new-man in a new-age funk, the self-absorbed and fundamentally unreconstructed product of fashion mag feminism, he delivers the word “charisma” with such cringing emasculation you can almost hear the scrotal sacs wither in the stalls. As daughter Tilly, Bel Powley pouts and stomps with aplomb, eloquently reductive and utterly barbarous. In a thunderously nightmarish set-piece Doon Mackichan’s Frances appears dressed in equestrian leather with an S&M mane of synthetic hair protuding from a totally gimpin’ scold’s bridle, and rubbing a riding crop over her vag to the strains of Freak Like Me all over a family holiday in Norfolk, draws on all the woman-centric pratfalling that her and her contemporaries pioneered in the realm of 90s TV comedy.
Tamsin Grieg is a comic performer who has mastered the understatement, tiny smirking movements give way to that catatonic dead-panning, that ironising of brief defeat so familiar from the telly. En présence actuelle, Grieg has nothing of the character-actor idiosyncrasy that television foists upon the imperfect. While on prime time she might look like a waxwork heron next to birds of paradise, or a twig floating downstream past manicured golf courses, here she is natural and serene as a lake. Mixing vulnerability with a sardonic core, she may fall slightly when it comes to the foetal depths of despair, never quite abandoning a little-miss-perfect sense of control, but her timing throughout is immaculate and her confusion is brilliantly wan.
Hilary is depicted as a stuck political and sexual subject, and while the latter predicament is drawn with elegance and a lightness of touch, the former is mired in vagueness. Grasping at the ghosts of gender politics from her youth at Greenham Common, counting off the impact of decades in threes, we get the strong sense that De Angelis is prevaricating. Despite a pretentious deconstruction of post-feminism, Hilary’s disquiet is born of a gender politics culled from a Cosmo column. Sharing a discursive level with a Bodyform advert, hers is a theoretical grounding that would make Caitlin Moran blush at just how reflective and widely insightful the products of five years spent compound-swearing on Twitter suddenly appeared in comparison. This is not to suggest a playwright know the exact contours of their characters’ shortfalls, although achieving a sense of what is outside them probably helps; its more the way that Jumpy sympathetically indulges their ignorance to the extent whereby laziness is presented as necessity, in which a covert celebration of anti-intellectualism poses as honesty.
When you add to this the Catherine Tate-esque caricatures of the working classes to which De Angelis is prone -here stolen in under intergenerational smoke, where teenage mothers, stabbings in Walthamstow, and patois allow us to cathartically bark our class anxieties – you get a play that would have John Osborne, whose name will always be associated with this theatre, heaving into his kitchen sink. For some this will be an honest and refreshing account of a professional middle-class white woman’s struggle to make sense of her life; for others a drawing room comedy, which for all its wit and verve, ultimately laughs-out-loud about having nothing much to say.