In writing Hope and Joy, writer Ellie Stewart expressed the desire to ‘write a play that explores our capacity to adapt and to embrace otherness’. Indeed, over the course of the play’s duration, the trio of characters – Hope, Joy and Hope’s swan-boy son, Magnus – each question their place in the world and work to embrace that which makes them stand-out from society. Sadly, this attempt for profundity is lost as time goes on, and is marred by over-reliance on mismatched, sketch-show-esque comedy.
Brought about by changes to the natural environment, Hope gives birth to an egg from which Magnus eventually hatches. Meanwhile, Joy is a disenfranchised hospital cleaner who struggles under constant benefits cuts, and helps Hope escape before eventually moving in with her and Magnus. The portrayal of this trio of characters is strong; actors Kim Gerard and Beth Marshall, in particular, play off one another incredibly well in the role of the eponymous characters. Their exchanges are sharp and witty, rarely struggling to incite laughter from the audience. Similarly, Ryan Havelin gives a good turn as Magnus, bringing a good balance of sensitivity, frustration and humour necessary for a teenage swan-boy.
Unfortunately, this is also where Hope and Joy ultimately stumbles. What unfolds is greatly a surrealist work that strives to question our relationship with the natural world and our place within it, as well as critique a multitude of issues, from climate change, to the benefit system, to the underfunding of the NHS. However, these issues are not always given the time needed to fully explore them, ultimately falling by the wayside. Instead, the play opts for a multitude of skits that feel at odds with the rest of the narrative, including multiple scenes of Magnus taking drugs with various fowl which, like the pigeons, overstay their welcome.
This affects the development of the characters, and ultimately the pacing too, as the conclusion feels both rushed and unsatisfying. The ambitions of the characters are never fully developed. Even Joy’s decision to let go of her unhealthy attachment to her goldfish, while powerful, lacks the desired gravitas. It is rare to feel that a play should be longer, but it truly seems as though with more time dedicated to the characters and their ruminations, then the moments of self-discovery that occur would be far more impactful.
This is a shame, as there is a great deal of promise within the production. Both Becky Minto’s minimalist staging and Susan Bear’s sound design keep the performance centred and excellently establish the sense of societal entrapment felt by the characters. Alongside the strong performances, Hope and Joy has the potential for something great. Sadly, by leaning more towards fantastical, surreal comedy, the play feels unfocused and fails to reach its lofty ambitions.