Faceful Of Issues
Very much in the tradition of Joyce Grenfell and Victoria Wood, and worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence, Jo Neary has created a delightfully uptight alter-ego in the form of Celia Jesson.
This hilarious show, in which the repressed Home Counties housewife presents a WI-style village fundraiser, debuted at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe but deserves a much wider audience.
It is no coincidence that the character has the first name of mannered 1940s and 1950s actress Celia Johnson, and the surname of her most famous role, Jesson from Brief Encounter. For Neary’s creation, too, carries an underlying poignancy of a wasted life and the regret for what could have been, had she only allowed some passion to break through her British reserve.
However that is just one layer of an impressive show that creates a convincing world of heightened middle-class tweeness – a surreal version of the halcyon, if entirely fictional, glory days of a bygone Britain – and absolutely packed with jokes. If ‘whimsy’ has become a dirty word, a euphemism for charm over sharp writing, Neary proves you can have both.
Her use of language is impeccable, a well-placed word like ‘assuaged’, or ‘Quink’ capturing so much of Jesson’s character. Precise references and casual asides hint at backstories that formed her, with only the most significant ever becoming explicit.
Neary uses the promise of forthcoming attractions to squeeze in quirky one-liners, while her musical sidekick ‘centre parting Martin’ – a possible distant cousin of fellow Yorkshireman John Shuttleworth – chips in the occasional punny advertising jingle.
Over the various sketches, Neary does an unlikely street dance to an even more unlikely hit, slips in decidedly non-PC lines in her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ way, and – in a clear highlight – channels the morale-boosting spirit of Dame Vera Lynn to sing stirringly about the terrible memories of war. The Oasis-Blur war of the mid-1990s, that is. The fact that Britpop, like Buzzfeed elsewhere, is so not ‘her’ is expertly ignored and adds to the straight-faced silliness of the venture.
In her compelling performance, Neary has impeccable comic instincts. The pauses are just perfect, and she knows when to ride a laugh, when to hold out for more, and when to move on swiftly.
A full hour is a slight stretch, although the very occasional lulls, usually related to her stories of jumble sale discoveries, are mocked via a charity totaliser rising and falling with the quality of her material.
But slap in the odd supporting character – and Neary’s long proved she’s never short of creating those – and Faceful Of Issues is pretty much a Radio 4 comedy waiting to happen, both mocking and appealing to the middle-class demographic.