Review: Unexpected Joy, Southwark Playhouse

I have a gay old time with warm-hearted new musical Unexpected Joy at the Southwark Playhouse

“I wanna show you what a woman can do”

One way to assess whether we’re getting closer to true equality when it comes to telling LGBT+ stories is when we can safely say that there’s a diversity in those stories. I can fully appreciate why some might feel frustrated at the simple primary colours of this coming-out story, of its (relatively) uncomplicated emotion but at the same time, isn’t it great to see a lesbian take on a mainstream rom-com trope, aimed at the silver pound to boot.

The Joy of Unexpected Joy is a baby-boomer era who is marking the one year anniversary of the death of Jump, her creative and life partner. And as she prepares for a concert celebrating his music, she invites her estranged tele-evangelist daughter and grand-daughter to share in the moment. And also to break the news that she is getting married, to a woman – that’s the unexpected bit, testing the familial bonds between these three generations of women. 

Produced by Aria Entertainment at the Southwark Playhouse in conjunction with their From Page To Stage Festival celebrating new musical theatre, this European premiere is something of an irrepressibly cheesy delight. Bill Russell’s book and lyrics may ultimately hold few surprises but along with  Janet Hood’s highly melodic score, there’s a heart-warming sincerity to it that gets something prickling at the eyes within its opening few numbers.

Maybe its the comparative rarity of getting to hear female voices harmonise and express themselves like this (Jodie Jacobs’ tightly-wound Rachel is so very good, Kelly Sweeney as her daughter Tamara an impressive debutant). Maybe its seeing older women being placed front and centre to finally have their stories told. Maybe its the whirlwind that is Melanie Marshall’s Lou whose wicked sense of humour underscores her ferocious lack of tolerance for bigotry. Or maybe its all of this and more.

Yes, Amy Anders Corcoran’s production could have afforded to turn up the chemistry between Lou and Janet Fullerlove’s Joy and yes, there’s an undoubted turn towards the sentimental in the finale. But isn’t it good to be able to sometimes escape the grittiness of reality, to imagine a happy ending for even the most diametrically opposed of political positions? Authenticity isn’t everything. 

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Pamela Raith Photography
Unexpected Joy is booking at Southwark Playhouse until 29th September

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