Writer: Ellie Stewart
Director: Caitlin Stewart
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
Liaisons with a swan, gandering with the geese and partying it up with pigeons, it’s a peculiar premise for Ellie Stewart fantastical comedy-drama Hope and Joy, which centres on the peculiar arrangement of characters after Hope gives birth to a large egg, containing her swan-hybrid son Magnus. During which, she is given words of encouragement by hospital cleaner Joy, a woman on benefits who cares for her mother and goldfish Pedro.
Once in a while, a piece of writing comes along to spread its wings and successfully manages to craft something original, lacing connectivity with the world around it. Hope and Joy has a brow-raising premise, but its narrative centres around something none too different from what we are familiar with, family, identity and acceptance, it’s just in a unique package. Further than this, Stewart’s writing glances over issues surrounding benefit cuts, an under-funded NHS and the intrusion we have on the natural world. The frustrating aspect is that these aren’t given the correct length of time nor emphasis, instead, being put to the side for more comedic skits which overstay their welcome.
It’s an uneven balance from a script which was otherwise an insightfully absurdist piece on the attitudes we have towards our natural environments, somehow marrying a plotline birthed by bestiality and motherhood. In tremendous support of Caitlin Skinner’s direction, performers Kim Gerard and Beth Marshall take the titular characters and hone them into believable roles, particularly Marshall’s disenchanted hospital cleaner striving for a home, a career and purpose beyond her goldfish. Her role has nuance discussions on the benefits issues the country faces, and how these ludicrous cuts force Joy into living with Hope and Magnus, to Magnus’ irritation.
Giving a strong turn from cygnet to full swan-boy, Ryan Havelin conveys familiar teenage angst, though this time with feathers. He brings a sensitivity to the role, which is commendable, and his comedic turns work for the most part, though often he is at odds with the direction of the script. Magnus feels too bold, too large for Becky Minto minimal staging which, is ingeniously designed, but its claustrophobic construct doesn’t help Havelin’s dance routines. A metaphorical closing in on the crushing pressures, this choking set attempts to bolster the inevitable feeling of freedom but instead contains everything a little too neatly.
Ironically, Hope and Joy’s weakness comes in what they suspect to be their key asset – comedy. In a bizarre twist, there’s just too many gags, puns and props which actively work against the sincerity that they’re building. Now, portions of the comedic talent are essential, jokes centring around teenage culture, a gang of pigeons as hooligans searching for their fix of seed are wonderful, but there becomes a reliance on dreadful sitcom stances of set-up, punchline, and repeat. It draws out any of the emotional connection we have with the characters, which thus far Gerard and Marshall have done a spectacular job in manifesting.
Absurdly abstract, what Stewart has is the start of an exceptional piece of surreal theatre with a concise ripple of comedy throughout. It’s still a fledgling however, struggling to spread its wings and get a firm footing. Relying heavily on running gags and jokes which flounder, when there is a fully capable team behind the production is a shame. It has glimmers of eccentric wonder, heightened by a talented cast who demonstrate Stewart’s capability of achieving sense, insightful sense, on identity, motherhood and the crippling damage down to our NHS from such a wonderfully bizarre premise.
Reviewed on 2 November 2019 | Image: Jassy Earl