views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Ivy & Joan
Jermyn Street Theatre
9th January 2015


Lynne Miller as Ivy/Joan

Photography provided by Jermyn Street Theatre

There's something about live performing arts which can really move us. We see a piece of theatre and sometimes it just makes us want to open up regarding our innermost thoughts and feelings. A trip to see Ivy & Joan at Jermyn Street Theatre may well evoke such a powerful response, but perhaps not in the usual way. Simply put, this is a play to break up to. If any part of you feels like you no longer have anything in common with your spouse, that the arguments have stopped being cutesy play-fighting and instead transformed into vicious verbal attacks which make you weep - yeah, this is the trigger which will finally make you file those divorce papers.

Playwright James Hogan tackles life in a heartbreakingly honest fashion, relating the painfully mundane in great detail. His style is reminiscent of Chekhov, milking every last pointlessly circular argument. An interval divides two acts, with each almost a standalone play. They could certainly be performed separately without anything being lost. However, they are linked by an unnecessary harsh female protagonist and long-suffering male counterpart. Snobbery, cruelty - there's no ol' razzle dazzle here, only petty swipes and faded dreams. Most people go to theatre to imagine a world of which they're not normally a part, but Ivy & Joan is aching familiar and in a rather uncomfortable way.

With that said, Chekhov plays aren't generally meant to entertain as much as they are to make you feel, and director Anthony Biggs has very much interpreted this play in that vein. Hogan's repetitive speech is made all the more everyday with long pauses and world-weary expressions. I am slightly uneasy with it always being the man who's the long-suffering character - after all, neither sex is fair - but this does add to the overwhelming sentiment of "life's a bitch and then you die" nestling in every page. Move the setting, the people - nothing changes.

Lynne Miller delivers an excellent performance as sour-faced Ivy. This first character, a sacked hotel worker waiting for her last shift to end, is any of the angry old women in Last of the Summer Wine, irritated by a younger generation (in particular "Little Miss Button Missing") and full of the utmost confidence that whoever is to blame for things panning out the way they have, it's certainly not her. Jack Klaff provides able support against this character, but that's all - in this first piece, he's very much in the background, occupying a space whilst Ivy puts the world to rights.

There's a hint of something more rounded when the bitter woman starts talking about the man she intends to marry, and who blatantly has already moved on a long time ago. Ivy is a doddery, mad, thoroughly infuriating lady, one who anyone would hate to work with - but she's still human. We can see some vulnerability there, even if it's masked with a convincing battle-axed disguise. It suggests the writer perhaps doesn't have such an unflattering black and white view of women after all.

For me, it's the second act which is more memorable. Here, Miller and Klaff lose the Yorkshire accents and working-class roots and become lower middle class (more "It's pronounced Bouquet!" than Waitrose and farmers' markets) desperately aspiring to more than they are. Eric (Klaff) is tediously pedantic as he corrects all of Joan's memories of their holiday in Venice; Joan (Miller) is unfeeling as she recalls her emotional affair with Signor Dottore Marcelo di Eduardo. Like the first act, there's plenty of repetition - certain words and phrases are brought up again and again, growing in significance each time.

The second storyline unravels slowly, with a more interesting (if downright bleak and depressing) subplot surrounding Joan's health. Klaff is given more of a chance to shine here; his character of Eric both garners our sympathy and loses it quickly. The performers work well together, so much so that when they took hands for a bow, I'd forgotten they were only acting and didn't actually hate each other.

As for the dressing, the first half is set in a run-down hotel which is in dire need of a makeover. Designer Victoria Johnstone raises the stage with some grotty carpet tiles - the kind designed to hide dirt rather than look attractive - paints the walls a dull pistachio and furnishes the set with slightly tatty pieces. Lighting designer Charlie Lucas helps lift the surroundings in the second half, with a wash of light which lifts the walls and makes it feel more homely, and Johnstone upgrades the furniture slightly, hinting at the previous comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by Joan and Eric. A wall cabinet reveals books on language and art - reminders of the fateful Italian holiday.

Despite all the resentment and grim nature of Ivy & Joan, it's a relatively gentle play - tame almost. This production is executed well, but none of the characters are designed to win over the audience, and that makes it somewhat difficult to get into.

Ivy & Joan opened on 6th January and runs until 24th January 2015 at Jermyn Street Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly (Piccadilly, Bakerloo)

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