A London Summer with Huntley Dent / The Berkshire Review in London / Theater

April De Angelis’ Jumpy at the Duke of York’s Theatre

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Tamsin Greig and Bel Powley in the original Royal Court production (2011). Photo by Robert Workman.
Tamsin Greig and Bel Powley in the original Royal Court production (2011). Photo by Robert Workman.

By April De Angelis
Directed by Nina Raine
Duke of York’s Theatre

Lizzie Clachan – designer
Paul Arditit – sound designer
Peter Mumford – lighting designer

Tamsin Greig – Hilary
Seline Hizli – Lyndsey
Richard Lintern – Roland
Ben Lloyd-Hughes – Cam
Doon Mackichan – Frances
James Musgrave – Josh
Bel Powley – Tilly
Amanda Root – Bea
Ewan Stewart – Mark

Preggers. A bloke in a certain frame of mind, namely male, might wonder why he is sitting at Jumpy. April De Angelis’ new play, beginning its West End run after a success at the Royal Court, is very witty but also very hen-partyish. When the women in the audience laugh knowingly at a line like, “Is she metal-pausal?” some men might wince. Their eyes are likely to avert when a whoop goes up at the sight of a hunky young man entering stage left, starkers, except for modestly covering himself down there. This isn’t gender neutral comedy, and the territory it covers — the generation gap between a middle-aged mother and her mouthy sixteen-year-old daughter — has a case of galloping cliche.

Jumpy is saved by the virtues that are expected when the Royal Court brand is stamped on a play: smart dialogue, excellent stagecraft, and social relevance spiced with an unmistakable whiff of hip. Failing to be hip is a besetting sin, and the central character, wife and mother Hilary (Tamsin Greig), mourns her total unhipness as she turns fifty, soon to be the victim of a sagging area under the chin that her daughter Tilly (Bel Powley) calls “vagina neck.” Not just the men in the audience gasp at that one. The phrase is meant to be impudent and shocking, uttered with the relish for disgust that marks adolescence. Knowing how to shock her mother is Tilly’s specialty, and the two conduct a battle of wills that comprises the entire play.

Tilly stomps around in mini-skirts and clogs with an urgent need to be out of the house at all hours. Her vocabulary, when addressing her mother, is restricted to “gross,” “disgusting,” and “are we done yet?” She sighs and rolls her eyes, playing the errant brat even after her best friend and then she get pregnant at drunken parties. Hilary is shattered at the girls’ “no biggie” sang froid, but she is also torn by her high feminist principles. She wants Tilly to feel independent and empowered as a woman — all the things Hilary fought for thirty years ago — but every shred of her motherly body must fight her rising anxiety and guilt. A loose, preggers daughter is not what she planned on, and her passive husband Mark (Evan Stewart) is no help, since Tilly has refined the art of playing one parent off against the other.

The arc of the plot is predictable: Hilary anguishes over being a good mother as her own youth fades away, Tilly rebels, Mark withdraws, a new man enters to tempt Hilary with a kiss. End Act 1. Hilary’s attempt at a fling has fizzled, making her feel more unwanted and unattractive than ever, Tilly’s pregnancy causes an uproar, things get sorted out, and the family discovers that they really do love one another, no matter what hits the fan. End Act 2. Curtain. But Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward availed themselves of copybook plots, too; the point is line-by-line wittiness. It’s a hard form to keep aloft, because once your characters start emitting brittle repartee at a machine-gun clip, there can’t be even a moment’s lapse without risk of deflation. De Angelis’ dialogue keeps pace with the best. The man who tempts Hilary with a kiss, Roland (Richard Lintern), is a histrionic actor, and he’s given good quips: “Arousing my wife sexually is like chipping away at an iceberg with a toothpick.”

Tilly’s off-color remarks test the limits of a mum’s tolerance. When she sees Roland for the first time, Tilly greets him with, “Have you shagged my mother yet? You gay?”  The audience is sorely tested not to bound onstage and give her a smack, so there’s applause when Hilary’s decorum collapses and she screams at her daughter, “Why can’t you keep you f–king knickers on?” But Tilly’s sexual bravado, as expected, is a thin mask for teen-age insecurity, and she repents in tears. A handy miscarriage solves the politically dicey issue of an abortion and provides a moment of sentiment before the laugh track resumes.

As the protagonist, Hilary occupies every scene, many of them quick blackouts wound around tight verbal clashes, but her personal style of humor is self-deprecating. A winsome college youth comes downstairs from Tilly’s bedroom, barefoot and disheveled with his shirt off. Hilary is abashed (i.e., turned on), but a post-feminist mom doesn’t judge. The young man eyes her. “I saw your picture upstairs,” he says. “You’re too hot to be Tilly’s mum.”

“It’s an old picture,” Hilary replies wryly. Not that old. Tamsin Greig seems too young and well put together to be believable as a bewildered suburban hausfrau who is mourning over her life at fifty. Greig, an Olivier Award winner, currently appears in a Showtime cable series called Episodes, where she plays a screenwriter who is thritysomething. She looks identical in Jumpy and in real life is still beautiful at forty-six. I suppose the miscasting is justified by box office draw and by the sharp turn into fantasy fulfillment that Jumpy takes in the second act. Magically Hilary wins her husband back, reconciles with her daughter, and has her cake, too, thanks to a tumble in bed with the hunky college student who emerged from Tilly’s bedroom (to save our sensibilities, he hadn’t slept with the daughter).

Beautiful, toned, and bedded by a boy thirty years her junior? For a hen-party play, this may work, but fantasy fulfillment sits uncomfortably with the other side of the plot, concerned with teen-age pregnancy, unprotected sex, the downfall of feminism, and midlife crisis. Jumpy serves up its relevance like nibbles on a cocktail napkin. You can’t hold anything against it, but walking down St. Martin’s Lane ten minutes later, nothing sticks in the mind beyond a fading glow, the exquisitely brief half-life of hipness.

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