This piece of new writing by Stephanie Martin tells the story of a young woman, very appropriately called ‘Joy,’ on the cusp of adulthood, trying to navigate parents, siblings, college, sex and love. Joy has Down’s Syndrome, which doesn’t seem to stop her doing whatever she wants, but can affect the way the people around her treat her. Her sister, while her biggest supporter, can be overprotective and a little dismissive. Her new friend Sue is nervous of committing faux-pas and keen to unload emotionally onto her and her father reacts to her growing up with aggression and curfews. Joy (Imogen Roberts) seeks solace and inspiration in her college project, in which she reads about an analogous Victorian sister double-act and their journey to find a home in an equally discriminatory and unpleasant society.
The script, Martin’s full-length first, is excellent. It is never syrupy, and is always driven by Joy’s wit and liveliness, whilst undoubtedly tackling pervasive oppression. The two timeframes are mostly woven very successfully, the Victorian episodes not overplayed and the analogy not rammed down the audience’s throat (although perhaps it could be a little more clear at times what Joy is taking from them). The script stays spunky and contemporary enough to carry it through scenes that in a lesser writer’s hands would have become cloying – only occasionally did the dialogue seem slightly forced in the big moral moments, and crucially never in the lines of Joy herself.
The real take-home of this play is however undoubtedly the performances themselves. The lead couple, Joy and Mary (Rachel Bright) have a chemistry which drives the whole show, with the supporting Victorian pair, Mabel (Stephanie Newman) and Maud (EJ Martin) likewise engaging our sympathies convincingly and touchingly. They are ably supported by Deen Hallisey, Kate Lynn Evans and Danny Scheinmann, each showing a excellent attention to detail. It is a shame that the action was sometimes marred by a slightly off-putting use of music, unduly emphasising the ‘transition-ness’ of a transition, cutting off jerkily or playing under an actor’s lines making it harder to concentrate on them – however, the entire cast dealt with this issue admirably.
But the runaway star is Joy herself, played to perfection by Roberts – funny, warm, and deeply moving. Her closing speech about life with Down’s Syndrome hits the perfect tone, refusing to let herself be defined by others’ treatment of her whilst still emphasising the need for social action and transformation which should not be lost amidst the joy. Here is the heart of the play, and in Roberts’ hands we could never miss it.
Overall, though, the show leaves you feeling incredibly warm and happy, and I am sure it will continue to sell out to enraptured audiences. Director Melanie Fullbrook has put together a really wonderful, and, yes, joyous production which would be well worth a visit by all.