Review: Emotional complexity and rich humour on Coventry stage in an examination of growing up

Emma Withers as Hilary and Matt Sweatman as Mark
Emma Withers as Hilary and Matt Sweatman as Mark

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Jumpy, written by April de Angelis and directed by Nicole Firth, at the Criterion Theatre, Coventry

Hilary (Emma Withers) is a harassed woman. Her job is going down the pan. Her husband Mark’s (Matt Sweatman) business is not doing well, and to top it all she has a daughter, Tilly (Kelly Davison) who ranks as the teenager from hell. Attitude just pours out of her. And though somehow Tilly seems to do all right at school, what really seems to interest her - at least as far as her mother can see - is sex.

As Tilly turns 16 she sets out to discover what it means to be a woman, though she does it in a very different way from Hilary at that age. Hilary’s passage to adulthood was marked by causes: Greenham Common, Women’s Liberation. And sex. For Tilly and her generation, causes are boring. For her, it’s all about image. And yet, for all her attitude she still is a child, at least in some ways.

Alongside all this the adults watch and worry and try to deal with their own problems. Hilary is at the centre of this play, struggling with anxiety for her daughter’s welfare while trying to find an identity for herself as a menopausal woman in a failing marriage. She does, with the not altogether helpful assistance of Frances (Deb Relton-Elves), who hilariously finds her own mature sexual identity in burlesque, and with Cam (Joe Caper) a university student much older and wiser and sexier than his years. And also with Roland (Jon Elves), father of Josh (James Smith), Lyndsey (Emma Whewell), a mother at fifteen, and Bea (Christine Evans), Roland’s bitter, manipulative wife.

If this sounds a bit grim, it isn’t. It is very, very funny. The wit is that of truthfulness; the laughter that of recognition. The acting and direction are superb. Emma Withers is on stage for the whole show, and her ability to switch emotions, often while changing her clothes in dozens of on-stage costume changes, is simply astounding. One really feels for her predicament and for her courage and her love. Kelly Davison as Tilly piles on the pressure relentlessly, testing her mother at every stage. She is clever, arrogant, obnoxious, funny and tragic all at once. These two together develop a rapport that is one of the most powerful and complex I’ve seen on the Criterion stage, and that’s saying something. But it only works because the whole cast is on form.

Jumpy is a wickedly sharp and funny homage to the painful process of growing up, which never ends. I won’t tell you the meaning behind the title: go and see the play and find out for yourself.

* Jumpy runs until Saturday May 12. Visit www.criteriontheatre.co.uk to book.