Led by Jane Turner, the women in Jumpy make a mockery of those who turn their noses up at simply being entertained. By Peter Craven.

Jane Turner helps lift MTC’s Jumpy off the ground

Marina Prior, at left, and Jane Turner in Jumpy.
Marina Prior, at left, and Jane Turner in Jumpy.

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There are moments in life when the commercial theatre can look like a delicious or desirable thing worth spending money on. Jumpy, by English playwright April De Angelis, is a superb comic romp beautifully observed through a not untender satirical eye, about a middle-aged mum with a tempestuous teenage daughter. It is expertly paced and soothes the mind while having emotional complexities that reflect realities, not just stereotypes.

It also has an absolutely commanding central performance from Jane Turner as the beset 50-year-old woman. This is not starry because of Turner’s TV fame but because she has an effortless authority, a riveting presence as an actress whose face can survey great continents of feeling before she jerks into a joke. 

This Melbourne Theatre Company production, which will be hosted by the Sydney Theatre Company from March 26, is directed with a deft, not flawless but always swift dexterity by Pamela Rabe, who is clearly a talented director of actors. It has a truly marvellous comic turn from Marina Prior as a lavishly tarty girlfriend, a dazzling stage debut from Brenna Harding (of Puberty Blues fame) as the turbulent teen, and a beautifully tuned, wryly elegant performance from Caroline Brazier as the tough posh mother of some unsuitable boy. And in a cast that’s less strong in the male department, Dylan Watson is a delight as the boy who flits from filly to cougar, succulent in a way that is liable to please any kind of person: straight, gay or parental. 

You would scarcely realise how appealing this show is likely to be to the mainstay theatregoer from the twittering theatre class, or indeed most of the reviews, with the exception of Cameron Woodhead’s in The Age

It’s odd how easily the core theatre audience can get sniffy about a play such as this, even when it’s performed here in a relatively expert and excellent production. You might be forgiven for thinking we have our sense of our sophistication so flattered by theatre we imagine to be cutting edge, however rough and tattered, however clichéd in its treadmill of experiment, that we fail to notice an exceptionally well-made play. Okay, this one is light as air, but no worse for that, and it happens to be directed by a formidable actress, is dominated by the excellence of its female acting, and has in a starring role a woman who not only deserves the respect she commands from the entire nation as a comedian, but in no way falls back on her famous mannerisms or shticks in a performance that has a world of tone colour and fear and command. 

It is as if we back away from a biddable theatre even if, with a play such as this, which was first seen at London’s Royal Court (hardly the domain of the more mindless variety of farceurs), it is penned by a woman who’s currently writing a play for Britain’s National Theatre. 

Jumpy may not compare well with the greatest David Williamson, with Don’s Party or The Removalists, which have greater shadow lines, but it compares very well both in sprightliness of exposition and in suggested, if not fully explored, depths of characterisations with some of his more run-around comedies. And yes, his later plays do have comparable outlines, as does a Joanna Murray-Smith play such as True Minds. But the interesting thing with this British bouncing ball of laughter and snatched buoyancy, both as a piece of writing and in its realisation in this production, is its virtuosity and vitamin.

De Angelis presents us with the image of a nervy woman with a complacent husband, a storm cloud sometimes stormtrooper of a daughter, her gormless boyfriend, another couple, the boys’ parents, a pregnant teen pal, a flamboyant middle-ager who’s getting older with maximum vulgar gusto, and a young guy who is the embodiment of desire for women across the ages. 

The older chaps aren’t bad but they don’t gleam like the women. David Tredinnick is not badly cast as the husband and he has a sort of slept-in credibility without rising to that soft-in-the-middle kind of manhood that you might associate with an English actor such as Hugh Bonneville. Nor does he have the effortless burbling comic timing.

John Lloyd Fillingham, who is an English actor and also plays one in Jumpy, is again convincing but not commanding, as the father of the boy who fools about with Turner’s daughter. 

On the other hand, Caroline Brazier as his wife is wonderfully commanding, bitchy and spry. It’s a smaller, on the face of it less rewarding role, but Brazier is flawlessly on the note. This is the kind of fine-crystal acting we so rarely see and that makes you want to cheer. 

So too does Marina Prior, forsaking musical comedy for a moment in a marvellous shrieking and slinking portrayal of a self-styled vamp of a woman who flaunts herself with every last gesture of her body (right down to the camel toe, as dreadful boys call it). It is a gorgeous piece of female self-mockery, a hoot of a performance any audience would take delight in.

Among the smaller roles, Laurence Boxhall, who looks as he should, is on the quiet side as the initial boyfriend and therefore more of a piece with the older blokes. And the symmetry of this, the vindication of Jumpy as a woman’s box of glory, is highlighted by the fact that Tariro Mavondo gives a lovely performance as the girl with the baby. 

Then there’s the exception. Dylan Watson, impressive as Ray Dooley with Noni Hazlehurst in The Beauty Queen of Leenane last year, is a wonderful lift to a show that uses the idea of sap and juice, the springing quality of desire, with a lilt that is almost a form of sacramental gift. Watson has all the tact and spring, all the slightly padded human fleshiness the part requires, as well as a charm, both frontal and sly, that testifies to terrific comic skills. His performance suggests, because of his skills not just his looks, what a star he may turn into. 

The real star of Jumpy is, of course, Jane Turner, and she shows with an ease that is never a shorthand just how much detail and range, how much variable intensity and doubt, a comic actress can get into a role that she inhabits like a skin. I like the way, as the rampaging daughter, Brenna Harding (who has a headlong brilliant energy) expresses barely a flicker of doubt, whereas Turner is forever wondering which way to go. Yet Turner’s performance holds the young TV actor’s up like a crucifix to banish demons. It doesn’t matter that Turner’s English accent comes and goes, this is a superb portrayal of a mother up against it, and it’s a testament to Turner’s skill that when she flares into maternal anger the audience gasps the way people do in real life when a mouse of a mother roars. 

Jumpy is a very polished play by a woman who knows every trick in the book. It’s not Pinter, it’s not Wilde, but it has qualities they would have seen afar off. 

And if the play is not a glimmering work of genius, the production is not flawless either, least of all in all its men but one. So what? This is a rib-tickling, heart-warming show in which a troupe of women led by the great Jane Turner, under the baton of the formidable Pam Rabe, show what the theatre can do when it rolls up its sleeves and works up a storm of entertainment.

1 . Arts diary

• DANCE  Nothing to Lose
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, March 11-21

• CIRCUS  Left
The Lotus Palace, Gluttony, Adelaide, until March 15

• VISUAL ART  Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until March 15

• CINEMA  War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918 

ACMI, Melbourne, until July 12

2 . Last chance

• VISUAL ART  Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture 

Museum of Sydney, ends tomorrow

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "A real stage Turner".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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