What Are Big Girls Made Of?

Some of us go to the theatre for the sheer relief of leaving rows with recalcitrant adolescents at home. So it is a mixed blessing to find that teenage torment is so beloved of directors this autumn. At least we have compensation in Tamsin Greig, whose performance in Jumpy at the Duke of York’s Theatre offers the sweet solace of seeing someone else’s offspring being impossible.

Greig has established herself in BBC2’s  comedy Episodes as an exponent of angsty mid-life uncertainty. As put-upon Hilary  here, she doesn’t have the harsh glamour of a screenwriter’s life in L.A., just the joys of commuting from Walthamstow, a precarious job and daughter Tilly (an extravagantly sulky Bel Powey), whose main concerns are party-going, random sex and the wellbeing of her iPod. Greig embarks on the Golgotha of teenage parenthood, issuing brisk lectures on revision times and personal responsibility. Tilly wears her down: a process exacerbated by Hilary’s nagging mid-life fretfulness. “Like you’re so happy,” is Tilly’s sarky rejoinder to the umpteenth sermon — and of course, she isn’t, which manifests itself in a flirtation with Tilly’s boyfriend’s dad, a marital rift and a guilt-sodden fling with a passing student. By this stage, sustained only by regular infusions of cheap white wine, she is behaving as erratically as her daughter.

Nina Raine’s direction leavens all this domestic woe with some outright farce. Frances (Doon Mackichan) as the rackety friend, urges post-feminist release — and performs a show-stopper in a leather bodice and feather duster. (This show has its own burlesque consultant, named Crimson Skye: which is just as it ought to be.)

April de Angelis’s writing is generally sound, though her grasp of social milieu is  wonky, so Tilly excels at GCSEs while living it large with single-mum Lyndsey (Seline Hizli), a benign version of Little Britain‘s Vicky Pollard, whose main aspiration is to work as a nail technician and has all but forgotten her recently stabbed boyfriend. This might make for amusing contrasts, but it doesn’t ring true. There is also here one lazy descent into the direst cliché, when Hilary issues a list of things she doesn’t want her daughter to succumb to at university and concludes: “Become a Tory”. How we laughed. Given that Tilly has by this stage had a near-miss pregnancy, taken possession of a gun and featured for her sexual athletics on Facebook, you’d have thought that a dalliance with Tory Boy should be the least of her problems.    

All this is sweetness and light compared to Simon Stephens’s one-act Morning, which has transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith after an enthusiastic reception at the Traverse in Edinburgh. If Ian McEwan’s Cement Garden met the Lord of the Flies the result might well be the two sociopathic mavens who dominate the action in Stephens’s short, uncomfortable drama. Stephanie (Scarlet Bilham) is a pretty 17-year-old, devoid of empathy and casually amoral as she awaits the death of her mother from cancer.  Her real love interest is her leonine friend Cat (Joana Nastari), about to leave their one-horse town to go to university, though not if clingy Stephanie can help it. 

Soon a plan to keep her best friend near at hand has morphed, rather incredibly, into the savage murder of Stephanie’s guileless boyfriend. This joyless enterprise is partly redeemed by two strengths: Stephens’s winning way with the vernacular of disaffected, densensitised teens and his deft handling of inverted morality.

Sean Holmes’s production features an eerie soundscape produced on stage by a performer at an electronic keyboard. Mostly, we forget that he is there, until he comments on a character’s development. It’s a moment of fresh, canny stagecraft which shows us why Stephens (one of the most frequently performed living British playwrights in Germany) is attracting a youthful following. Performances from the Lyric’s Young Company are assured, but the dramatic material here feels scanty. 

Speaking of women who don’t turn out quite as their parents hoped, Hedda Gabler (around 28 in Ibsen’s imagination) is reincarnated at the Old Vic, the opening offer of an ambitious 2012-13 season. Director Anna Mackmin has taken a risk with Sheridan Smith (Flare Path, Legally Blonde and Gavin and Stacey) as the most lethally bored housewife in Nordic history. Her Hedda has the boundless malign spirit of a playground bully — in Brian Friel’s racy version, she derides poor Thea (a finely agitated Fenella Woolgar) as a “bitch” and revels smugly in her torments. Friel brings a new, arch playfulness to the translation, while Hedda’s salon sneer barely masks her desperation and multiple death wishes. She exudes sensuality turned sour, but she lacks the terrifying eddies of aggression and self-destruction that make this the most compelling and chilling of Ibsen’s plays.  

Her Gavin and Stacey fellow-graduate Adrian Scarborough is so brilliantly irksome as Jorg Tesman, the fussy academic, that we empathise with Hedda’s horror at the prospect of a life frittered between his cloying domesticity and the sexual extortions of the “cock of the yard”, Judge Brack, (a silkily manipulative Darrell d’Silva). The set (by Lez Brotherstone), with scraped white walls, chilly glass reflections and outsized doors, conveys the grandeur of Hedda’s barren married life, but also its intolerable artifice. What we miss is the terror of a moral world turned upside down in a provincial drawing room. Without that, Hedda has a hole in it.

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