Originally published on A Younger Theatre
The Jermyn Street Theatre is a hidden gem: just seconds from the big, brash lights of Piccadilly Circus, this neat little venue is tucked between the shops and restaurants of Jermyn Street, but its intimate space and welcoming vibe are a treat. It was certainly looking pretty starry on press night, with audience members such as Simon Callow bringing a little celebrity stardust to the proceedings.
But the main attraction was of course James Hogan’s Ivy and Joan, a double bill of short plays – both two-handers – that focus on two ostensibly very different women on the brink both of literal journeys, and of turning points in their lives. While both short works are enjoyable enough, delivering on the promised combination of comedy and poignancy, they do face problems in tone and structure respectively, despite the talents of the cast.
First we meet Ivy, recently fired from running a hotel cocktail bar and decidedly sour about the fact, but clinging onto the desperate hope of an old romantic reunion. Lynne Miller plays Ivy with deadpan humour and a glimpse of a warm heart underneath her embittered exterior and blunt Northern accent; she is effectively complemented by the understated Jack Klaff as friend and colleague Victor, who is wearied by her attitude but reluctant to turn his back. The dialogue is deftly crafted, with more than a hint of Alan Bennett throughout in the repeated phrases that become vicious even in their mundanity: Ivy mourns the loss of her “Sheridan bone china” saucer, and tuts over the new, younger and cleavage-flaunting staff member “Little Miss Button-Missing”.
While Miller gives a performance full of robust energy and verbal parrying with the long-suffering Vic, both the humour and despondency are rather gentle and this work creates a small splash rather than making waves. Nonetheless it is successful as a short opener, and the excellent central performances do enough to keep you absorbed.
In the second half, Miller reappears as Joan, alongside Klaff as her husband Eric, in an altogether more complex piece. We meet the married couple as they launch into an argument after an apparently disastrous holiday to Venice. While her husband appears more preoccupied with the correct terminology for Venice’s beautiful architecture, Joan has been entranced by an Italian stranger – or an ageing gigolo, in Eric’s opinion. What begins as simple bickering enters more muddy waters when it emerges that Joan has recently been hospitalised and regularly visits a psychiatrist. The emergence of these facts makes their relationship more tricky to untangle, and it is left unclear whether Eric is doing the best thing for his wife or, frustrated by her poetic endeavours and alternative treatment ideas – the terms “organic” and “vegan” are spat out with amusing disgust – he is preparing to abandon her.
For all that it offers more depth than the first play of the evening, the structure of this second half is too cyclical, spiralling further into the couple’s troubled relationship without revealing many new facts or emotions. The lack of progression in the work becomes more vexing than intriguing, although once again the strong performances and dialogue produce humour that is almost painful in its melancholy.
Ivy and Joan is a rather gloomy double bill of works, but the cast of two are impressive in their versatility and ability to hold your focus even when the plays themselves begin to drag, particularly in the second half. Not the most memorable production you’ll find, but worth seeing if just to support a lovely fringe venue in the heart of the West End.
Ivy and Joan is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 24 January. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website. For theatre reviews, news and features, visit the A Younger Theatre website.