At the end of Old Money, Sarah Wooley’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre, the audience clapped and cheered with great enthusiasm. I, however, was left feeling that I’d seen this story before, and seen it executed better.
Maureen Lipman is Joyce, an innocent 65-year-old from Surrey, who discovers a new lease for life after being widowed. Instead of looking after her elderly mother (brilliantly played with wicked zeal by Helen Ryan) who spends her time complaining she has no friends (‘I’ve been to twelve funerals already this year. Twelve. And it’s only August.’), Joyce skips off to London where she splashes out on a bright red coat from Bond Street, talks to strangers on a park bench, sees her first opera and befriends a stripper. Nothing new there.
Meanwhile Joyce’s daughter Fiona, a call centre manager, is pregnant with her third child at 42 (‘I’m practically menopausal’, she wails) and married to feckless Graham, a failed musician who now gives private guitar lessons to children with names like Tarquin. Tracy-Ann Oberman, yelling and shrieking whenever she’s on stage, fails to portray Fiona as anything other than an unsympathetic caricature. She’s either fighting with her husband, who quits his job meaning they will lose their home, or with Joyce, who now refuses to provide the free childcare Fiona seems to think is her right to demand.
This is a shame because Wooley has interesting points to make about the current economic climate (though they play is set in 2008) and the effect it has had on families as elderly parents are often required to help out their middle-aged children, even welcoming them back to the family home. A more nuanced and thoughtful exploration of this situation would have raised Old Money above the pitfalls of cliche it so often falls into.
Wooley also tries to explore the relationship between mothers and daughters. Joyce hates her mother for forcing her into an unhappy marriage and refuses to take care of her when she’s dying. In one particularly devastating line, Joyce says she’s not interested in her mother and would rather that the two of them were strangers. In parallel runs Fiona’s observation that she only knows Joyce as a mother, as a parent, and that there was a whole ‘before’ that she will never know. We watch Joyce’s mask of parent and mother slipping throughout the play until the end when, after taking her new friend Candy the stripper to a champagne tea at the Ritz, she tells her family to ‘fuck off’ and runs off into the Argentinian sun.
You want to cheer for Joyce’s escape at the end, you really do, but, despite a moving performance by Lipman, who also shows us that she’s lost none of her comic touch, you can’t help feeling that you wish her story hadn’t been so turgidly handled.