Southwark Playhouse’s new musical An Unexpected Joy has just made its UK debut after a successful run off-Broadway. The show feels jubilant and topical, and is packed full of the joy as promised in the title.
The show is set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and centres around three generations of female singers: Joy (Janet Fullerlove), a successful hippie musician, Rachel (Jodie Jacobs), her daughter who has rebelled and married a deeply conservative televangelist, and Tamara (Kelly Sweeney), Rachel’s daughter who aligns far more with her grandmother. The relationships between these women are the heart of the show, and are tested when Joy reveals her plans to marry a woman named Lou (Melanie Marshall), who represents everything Rachel is averse to.
The show felt very current, touching on themes of sexuality, religion, family and feminism, and was unafraid to explore the oftentimes-polarising political divide that can be seen on both sides of the Atlantic. The placement of the characters in different ideologies allowed the musical to be both an intimate family story and a wider political narrative.
Janet Fullerlove perfectly embodies the main character of Joy, and provides constant laughs whilst completely charming the audience. The character brings to mind singers like Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith, though Fullerlove’s vocals did not always reach the same calibre.
Jodie Jacobs had perhaps the toughest job, as her character is in opposition to the other three. However, Jacobs played her character with such compassion that she was in a way the most sympathetic. It certainly helped that Jacobs was such a standout vocally, moving audience members to tears with her ballads, and knocking their socks off with her belting and riffs.
Newcomer Kelly Sweeney was delightful as Rachel’s rebellious, yet likeable daughter Tamara. She provided excellent comedic relief at times (such as in the song “Like a Good Girl”) and dazzling with her singing whenever she had the opportunity.
Melanie Marshall rounds off the cast as Lou, Joy’s fiancée, a singer and the show’s only strong and proud queer character. Marshall’s performance as Lou was excellent, as was her vocal performance, though she and Fullerlove do not have much opportunity to establish their characters’ relationship, which felt slightly lacking.
Overall the musical’s score was enjoyable, though at times the lyrics occasionally felt somewhat lacklustre. Sometimes simply describing the exact situation a character was in, rather than exploring their emotional journey. However, Gareth Bretherton’s musical direction made up for this, exploiting the four actors’ vocal talents to breath-taking effect.
In conclusion, An Unexpected Joy is an unexpectedly emotional journey, exploring wider political themes through family dynamics, and thereby encouraging the bridging of gaps. All the way through this one-act show, there is an air of positivity and hope that makes it an uplifting and enjoyable piece of theatre.
UNEXPECTED JOY is at the SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE until the 29th of September
Wednesday – Saturday: 8.00pm
Thursday & Saturday: 3.30pm
Address: Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6BD
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Written by Tamsin Hare.
Photos courtesy of the Southwark Playhouse.