Thursday, 6 December 2012

Theatre review: Old Money

Hampstead Theatre ends its current main house season of new plays with Sarah Wooley's Old Money, about a 60-something widow's second lease of life. Following the death of her husband, Joyce (Maureen Lipman) gets hold of the house and all the money, and slowly realises she can enjoy it. After making the 30-minute train journey to London, seen all her life as some kind of impossible distance, she gradually gets bolder - going to the opera, chatting to men, and eventually striking up a friendship with stripper Candy (Nadia Clifford.) But back in Surrey, Joyce's family are unable to see that anything's changed: Her elderly mother Pearl (Helen Ryan) has been a controlling presence all her life and expects this to continue. And her daughter Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman,) married to the rarely-employed Graham (Timothy Watson) and pregnant for the third time, sees her mother largely as a childcare opportunity, also good for regular loans when they have trouble paying the mortgage.

Wooley's play, in a likable if understated production by Terry Johnson (a late replacement? My ticket credits Robin Lefevre as director) is essentially a gentle inter-generational comedy of a woman rediscovering her life and her nerve, as symbolised by the bright red coat she buys, and which her family sees as terribly inappropriate for her. As a comedy it's a bit too gentle for my liking - there's a few really funny moments but for the most part it's about the level of the afternoon sitcom repeats Graham sits at home watching.

I did have certain bigger issues with the play though, largely in terms of characterisation. I'm not sure if I was supposed to like any of the characters, I certainly didn't enough to properly care about the story. The only unequivocally good character is Candy, who is herself something of a dramatic cliché of the stripper with a heart of gold (and I felt that the issue of how she supplements her income was rather flippantly dealt with.) On the other end of the scale we have the monstrous Pearl, who persuaded Joyce into an unhappy marriage through extreme means, and the extent of whose controlling ways becomes ever more apparent as the story goes on, so that Joyce's eventual desire for revenge is understandable. But then there's the issue of the materialistic Fiona, shopping 'til she drops even when the house is in danger of foreclosure, and her feckless husband, unwilling to stay in a job but somehow unable to look after their violent children while he's off work. These two we also see in the worst possible light, but although their eventual fate isn't quite as bad as it first looks, I wasn't able to see Joyce's actions in the entirely positive way I think we were meant to.

With the various generations at play and the issue of the daughter's house, I couldn't help seeing parallels with the other plays this year that have looked at the legacy of the baby boomers. Undoubtedly Joyce differs from her contemporaries in Love, Love, Love and The Last of the Haussmans in that she didn't get to enjoy her life or her money while she was younger, but she does make up for it here, and the end result is the same with her life having been comfortable (if not always happy) while her daughter and grandchildren are left to struggle. I think if we'd seen Joyce try to make Fiona understand that she's a person beyond just being her mother, I might not have minded so much when the younger woman has to pay for not realising it. The action is set a few years back, perhaps to suggest that the previously-isolated Joyce hasn't quite caught on to how bad the financial situation is. But even with Fiona and Graham being hard to like, seeing them snowed under with problems while her mother splashes out on treats makes Joyce's triumph hard to sympathise with, and I found myself siding with Fiona (fortunately not from personal experience, I hasten to add; my mum's awesome. As am I.)

Richard, it has to be said, really enjoyed it, and having grown up in Cheam where a lot of the action takes place, he found it very accurate. His only criticism was with the doubling of Geoffrey Freshwater in a plethora of small parts; I'm used to doubling but I think the problem here is that the first role Freshwater plays appears to be one that might be significant, only for him to then crop up playing various other incidental roles instead, which does throw you a bit. But obviously for Richard the play overall really hit the mark. For me, unfortunately, the whole thing was a bit too slow and underpowered, made harder to overlook by the problems I had finding a character to root for.

Old Money by Sarah Wooley is booking until the 12th of January at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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