Keeping Up with the Joans

There is something wonderfully self-reflexive about Keeping Up With The Joans. A play which centres on two women actors growing old disgracefully in a retirement home is played by two actors best known for TV series broadcast in the 1970s and 80s.

Meeks refuses sentimental gush in pursuit of an image of old age both truthful and fantastical, just like memory itself.

The play sees Katy Manning (Jo Grant of Doctor Who) and Susan Penhaligon (Prue Sorensen of Bouquet of Barbed Wire) play two retirees and one-time co-stars, fiercely competitive divas locked in battles both professional and romantic. As the war threatens to rage on into their old age, care worker Gary becomes the unsuspecting arbiter of the conflict, in the process winning both women’s and indeed our own trust.

The pair complement each other well: where Manning teeters towards melodrama, Penhaligon is an incurable cynic. They give performances whose honesty derives from experience. Yet this is as much a pitfall as a virtue: at times, writer Phillip Meek’s script seems almost too real, the plot too mundane, the conversation too meandering to be worthy of drama.

Yet though the play perhaps overindulges its protagonists in anecdote and reminiscence, Meeks’ skill is to tease out intrigue retroactively, to catalyse revelation through (albeit failing) memory. Suddenly, the show’s backward looks seem less superfluous. Though there is a somewhat tenuous attempt at launching off into the fantastical towards the show’s very end, it is sustained by the show’s ability to laugh at itself.

Keeping Up With The Joans is not a rip-roaring comedy, but nor does it claim to be. Rather, its everyday humour works it magic gently, almost imperceptibly. Though the narrative trajectory may not be a rollercoaster, its wit not white-hot, it paints a subtle picture of fading glamour. In the end, Meeks refuses sentimental gush in pursuit of an image of old age both truthful and fantastical, just like memory itself.

Reviews by Rivkah Brown

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The Blurb

This bittersweet comedy about failing memory, friendship and mimicking martyrs comes from Fringe First winning writer Philip Meeks. ‘A whiplash wit’ (Guardian). Award-winning writer/director Patrick Wilde. Stage and screen stars Susan Penhaligon (Bouquet of Barbed Wire) and Katy Manning (Doctor Who) play eccentric rival amateur theatricals manipulated by sinister care worker Gary into facing the traumatic past that ruined their once precious friendship. As they recall days gone by and hysterically settle their differences they soon start unearthing the startling secret - just who did play the greatest Saint Joan of all?