Sarah Wooley’s first outing in a major London space is the kind of stereotypical Hampstead fare that this theatre has increasingly eschewed in recent years: not quite the clichéd “adultery in NW3” (Hampstead’s postal district), but not far off it, namely self-discovery in suburban Surrey.
Joyce has managed to reach her senior years without doing anything much except whatever others wanted: her mother, her husband, her daughter and son-in-law. On being widowed of the man she was (it transpires) blackmailed into marrying in the first place, she inherits not riches but enough time and money to take trips into London: she goes to the opera, to galleries and fetches up by accident in a pole-dancing bar where she makes friends with one of the dancers. Little by little, she finds an identity and the backbone to assert it in a family where even omitting to pay weekly visits to hubby’s grave is a mortal sin.
In its premise, and in Wooley’s seriocomic treatment thereof, it feels as if it could have been a BBC-TV sitcom for two or three seasons in the late 1980s or early ’90s, quite possibly written by Carla Lane. Which is to say that it’s well executed but there is nary a whiff of originality. Even the mild note of generational moral ambiguity, in that Joyce may be considered culpable for leaving her daughter’s family to fend for themselves, was handled much more explicitly a year or two ago by Mike Bartlett in Love, Love, Love, and is in any case defused here by making daughter Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman) and her husband so feckless, in a middle-class way.
Maureen Lipman gives a restrained but strong performance as Joyce, and Terry Johnson’s direction is as sure-footed as usual. Changes in location are wittily signalled by flying down different domestic light fittings from a clump hanging over the stage in Tim Shortall’s design.
This play is here for a while. Then it will be gone, leaving as little mark as Joyce before her Indian summer.