Two plays in two acts. Ivy and Joan tells the story of two very different ladies and their everyday lives. What initially seems like regular conversations between work colleagues and partners, develops as you get drawn into their story and you forget it’s just two actors and a table. The honesty of the performance appears because there’s nothing else to hide behind. At times, in the small but cosy Jermyn Street Theatre, you feel like you’re imposing on these ladies lives. It’s the sort of rich detail of conversation you usually only get if you eavesdrop on someone else’s phone call. There’s just enough to understand what’s going but still enough mystery to leave you wanting a little bit more. Although billed as one play per act, the stories of Ivy and Joan have interlinking qualities. The play as a whole is about difference. The ying and the yang. The old and the young. The rich and the poor. The sane and the insane. And this works brilliantly. It links the lives of these two very different ladies so they don’t seem as different as you initially think.
In the first act it’s 1980 in Lancashire. Ivy is our leading lady, the typical miserable worker grumbling about the ‘youth of today’ as she enjoys her last cup of tea in the staff room of her former workplace. Joined by fellow worker Victor, Ivy moans about everything from her younger and prettier predecessor to her missing china saucer. Whether we’re supposed to feel sorry for her or find her wailing funny, it’s hard to have any emotions towards her endless monologues other than annoyance. The simple stage design and lack of other actor’s means there’s nowhere to hide and it’s all down to the honesty of the acting to tell the story. Sometimes it works, but often it’s very two dimensional. Each line is read after the next, as though they are simply waiting for the other to finish talking rather than having a genuine conversation. The jokes get a few half-hearted laughs but there’s not much to laugh about. As the characters develop though, the actors do too and it does improve as the first act comes to a close.
During the interval, a quick set change begins to take place. Everything discretely folds away neatly and the new scenery begins taking shape from items hidden under props you haven’t noticed before. Most impressive is the clever lighting change. With the addition of a softer lamp, the sickly green walls of the hotel staff room fade to an airy baby blue colour, setting the scene for Joan in the second act.
Joan and Eric enter the stage for act two. A much more complex storyline than the first play, we learn of Joan’s schizophrenic tendencies and the couple’s recent trip to Italy. Whether this script is better written, or the actors suit the roles better, there’s a vast improvement in the quality compared to act one. The drama and excitement that was lacking in the first half, appears here. It’s a shame that this depth is lacking in Ivy’s story, as it gives the audience the potential to leave even before they’ve seen Joan. It seems as though two completely new actors have appeared before our eyes. Not only are they entirely different characters in a new setting but suddenly they’re really beginning to act. It’s certainly easier to feel empathetic towards Joan’s character and that’s why the play seems to dramatically improve so much.
The retention of the lines is incredible. It’s faultless in the delivery (or very well disguised if there is an issue). But unfortunately the lines could have been delivered with more emotion and humour to make it a more compelling show.
Ivy and Joan is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 24 January 2015
Reviewed by Keziah Leary