Unexpected Joy – Southwark Playhouse, London

Book and Lyrics:  Bill Russell

Music:  Janet Hood

Director: Amy Anders Corcoran

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

To have another lesbian musical coming so soon after Fun Home is a very unexpected joy indeed. Bill Russell and Janet Hood’s musical, now playing at the Southwark Playhouse, may lack the sophistication (and the budget) of the Young Vic’s Fun Home, but it certainty doesn’t lack heart.

Unexpected Joy tells the story of Joy, a famous folks/blues singer of the 1960s/70s planning a memorial concert for her late (male) partner, in music and in love, in present-day Cape Cod. Joy, played by an excellently funny Janet Fullerlove, has asked her daughter and granddaughter to perform at the concert with her. She’s got some news to tell them too; she’s getting married: to a woman.

This news won’t go down well with her daughter Rachel who has rejected her birth name of Rainbow, and who now sings gospel on her televangelist husband’s show, sharing his homophobic beliefs. Telling her teenage granddaughter, Tamara, is an easier affair. Despite a strict upbringing, Tamara is liberal-minded and writes her own songs, which she secretly performs at open-mic nights in coffee shops back home in Oklahoma. She thinks her grandmother’s new adventure is nothing, but cool.

Completing the line up in the memorial concert is Lou, Joy’s butch girlfriend. Feisty and political she claims that she’s ‘the only dyke in America who doesn’t want children’. With her distrust of heteronormative conventions it does seem odd that Lou is the one insisting on marriage, while it is hippy Joy who questions whether matrimony is an antiquated institution. In a period where the pressure to marry extends to even greater sections of the population in the West, it is interesting to see a debate about the usefulness of marriage in today’s society, even if seems impossible that this musical is not heading for the inevitable ending.

But rather than the politics, the music is the focus here. The songs written by Russell and Hood, who gave us the memorable Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens in 1990, are a mixed bag, their folksy feel not quite catching the spirit of the Flower-Power generation. Better are the numbers that are written more in a musical theatre vein. It is with these songs, such as I Think I’m Losing my Voice or Raising Them Right that Jodie Jacobs as Rachel can really deliver, and her powerful voice is a perfect fit here. And it’s certain that we will see newcomer Kelly Sweeney again; as Tamara, her acting and singing is impressive, and she controls her voice to great effect in the song When Will I Have My Own.

As Lou, Melanie Marshall’s comic timing has the press-night’s raucous audience whooping with delight and her classically trained voice blends very neatly here with Fullerlove’s bluesy tones. When the four of them are singing together, with Gareth Bretherton’s talented four-piece band, there are moments of sheer joy, helped by the close proximity of the audience in Southwark’s smaller space. The free spirit politics of CommoGround ensure an exciting finale.

Playing straight through without an interval, Unexpected Joy lives up to its name and its examination of family dynamics across three generations, while sometimes predictable, ably gives a structure to the songs. Both nostalgic and future-driven, this musical is worth seeking out.

Runs until 29 September 2018 | Image: Pamela Raith

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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