Unexpected Joy brought unexpected tears to my eyes. It got me at the start, with the early song ‘Before You Arrive’, in which the titular Joy recounts her experience of preparing for the birth of her daughter Rachel, and she learns that Rachel in turn sang it as a lullaby for the daughter, Tamara. As they sing of “clearing the weeds” in anticipation of the birth of their respective daughters, you see them united in their feelings of maternal love.
But this moment is not sappy in the key of twee. It’s poignant, because they are complete opposites. Joy, one-half of ‘70s music duo Jump & Joy, is a weed-smoking hippie musician who doesn’t let age get her down, whilst daughter Rachel (née Rainbow) has rebelled by becoming a gospel singer who marries into a televangelical empire. Then there is Tamara, who is keeping her own singing talent a secret from her controlling mother, whom she calls “Christ-zilla”.
On the occasion of a memorial concert for the family patriarch, Jump, (he and Joy never married), the three reunite in Joy’s home in the bohemian Provincetown. But as with most family reunions, drama is served with dinner. In this case, it comes in the form of a surprise wedding announcement – Joy is marrying her lesbian lover Lou, who also happens to be a singer. Voices are raised, secrets are spilled, songs are belted out.
The musical’s easy-listening soundtrack of pop, jazz and bluesy toe-tappers and ballads are inspired by musicians from the ‘60s and ‘70s like Laura Nyro, James Taylor and Carole King, a nod to the formative years of the fictional Jump & Joy. Janet Hood’s mix of pop, rock, folk and even gospel tunes is likeable and affecting.
There is also a clever doubling of the four-piece band (including musical director Gareth Bretherton) as musicians in the memorial concert, but I grew tired of the characters’ constant need to perform. Mics are often retrieved and put back, which while symbolic, translated visually into clunky stage action.
Two silent items in the set by Verity Johnson speak volumes, however. There are the two chairs: one placed in the front, such that characters sitting on it would have their backs facing the audience; and the other a large armchair facing the audience. These to me represented the male characters in the story, Jump and David, Rachel’s husband, who were watching and influencing the women’s behaviour in different ways.
Writer and lyricist Bill Russell’s full-bodied characters are well-served by the excellent cast. I enjoyed Janet Fullerlove’s free-spirited, skirt-hitching Joy who is rudderless after her lover’s death. Yet despite finding a new lease of life/love, she can’t quite identify with the lesbian label the way Lou can.
Kelly Sweeney also turns in a strong performance as bright-eyed Tamara, who is starting to discover her, ahem, voice and identity separate from her parents. Packing powerhouse vocals are charismatic Lou (Melanie Marshall) and buttoned-up Rachel (Jodie Jacobs), who make perfect foils for each other.
Russell’s plot has a sitcom quality to it – tough topics are talked about, but you don’t quite learn anything new. Lines are designed to act as punchlines. At one point, Lou describes herself as “Lou-who-do-the-voodoo-Lou-do-
But I can appreciate what Russell and Hood are trying to do in the context of our increasingly fractured world. Unexpected Joy is a dress rehearsal for what an ideal world might look like, where the power of love and communication trumps all. Despite my in-built cynicism, I could not fault it. I left with a smile on my face.