Old Money, Hampstead Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews
Old Money, Hampstead Theatre
Maureen Lipman misfires as a pensioner with more money than sense
We never glimpse the source of the old money in Sarah Wooley’s new play, for it’s his funeral that opens proceedings. We will get no sense of the man, or the extent of his wealth, or the way he spent it. The eventual irrelevance of such a specific title typifies a muddled and terribly trite evening.
Maureen Lipman plays the dead man’s widow, Joyce, who appears at the funeral as a rabbit trapped in the headlights, a sexagenarian naïf, who seems to be completely ignorant of the world and its ways. We’re asked to believe that Joyce has been, if not literally locked up, then cloistered by her controlling husband and mother in some sort of suburban prison.
Her mum, the babbling old crone Pearl (Helen Ryan), assumes that her daughter will remain under her thumb, caring for her in her dotage; Joyce’s daughter Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman, pictured right) and son-in-law Graham (Timothy Watson) view Joyce’s inheritance as a lifetime of handouts. Beneath Joyce’s timid exterior, however, little twitches of rebellion suggest otherwise.
There’s the germ of a straightforward but not unsatisfying drama here, of a subjugated wife and mother breaking away from a grasping family and rediscovering her own identity. But I’m doing Wooley a favour even suggesting as much, because if that is her theme she makes an almighty hash of it.
The first act involves a concentrated exercise in head-scratching, as Joyce escapes Surrey for the bright lights of London in bizarre increments. First she buys a red coat, as if wearing it will undo a lifetime of harm (I could only think of the psycho-dwarf in Don’t Look Now); we then see her in Regent’s Park, talking to a stranger on a park bench as though she’s never spoken to a man in her life; she talks of going to the opera, of visiting an art gallery, yet finally settles on a seedy pub where she befriends one of the strippers (Nadia Clifford) and finds her nirvana.
The plotting becomes even more implausible in the second act, which introduces a preposterous back story about Pearl's blackmailing of her daughter into marriage, and a heavily-hinted rape that is then forgotten. And why we spend so much time with Fiona and Graham is a mystery; their loss of their home completely fails to resonate, even given its echo of the economic crisis, because he's a waster, and she's a brat.
Most damaging of all is the fact that Joyce simply doesn’t ring true. Lipman’s performance, with its bird-like tweet, glazed stare and stiff-legged walk, makes her seem almost alien, one of those over-the-top female caricatures that Mike Leigh encourages his actresses to create when he’s off form, not a believable woman at all. When she finally cracks, telling her family to “shut the fuck up”, playwright and actress are reaching for a moment they haven't earned.
Terry Johnson directs, which ought to be notable, but he’s handled better material. This is not so much old money, as money for old rope.
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