'Unexpected Joy' is a moving exploration of family, faith and love - review

The Off-Broadway musical arrives in the UK at London's Southwark Playhouse.


The unexpected joy of Unexpected Joy is how a show that seems to have come out of nowhere (it ran for just over a month Off-Broadway earlier this year) turns out to be such a delight.

It’s poignant and pertinent too, dealing with sexual identity and marriage equality through the tale of three female generations of the same family, singers all, coming together to pick open scabs, air resentments and eventually learnING to live in harmony - perfectly when it comes to their singing, a little grudgingly but with greater acceptance when it comes to how they live their lives.

Grandma Joy has a bombshell to drop; a former hippie singer and half of a performing duo with a man she loved but never married, she’s planning to wed a a black, take-no-crap lesbian named Lou.

That’s totally cool with her granddaughter Tamara, a singer-songwriter who channels her inner badass through her compositions, but not cool at all with daughter Rachel, who is married to a famous TV Bible-thumper and believes homosexuality is an abomination.

Photography: Pamela Raith

There are boys in the band but these four females are the only players on stage, which means the show needs a stellar cast and it sure gets one for its UK premiere.

Janet Fullerlove is a lovely Joy, giving off an Earth Mother vibe as she debates the merits of marriage whilst rolling a joint. Jodie Jacobs shades Rachel, who could be a monster, with complexities, Kelly Sweeney does teenage angst really well and Melanie Marshall sasses splendidly as gay-identifying, straight-talking Lou.

They all do justice to Janet Hood’s score, which is a catchy mix of folk, pop and gospel. And Bill Russell’s book and lyrics give each actress a chance to shine as themes of family, faith and love are intelligently explored.

Funny and touching and very now, it’s also a show that celebrates women - straight, gay, gender fluid, young and old - and that’s a joyful thing indeed.

Rating: 5/5

Unexpected Joy is at Southwark Playhouse until 29 September. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.

Words: Simon Button