Interview: playwright April de Angelis on her feminist comedy, Jumpy

The cast of Jumpy in rehearsal, left to right Stephen McCole, Molly Vevers, Dani Heron, Gail Watson, and Cameron Crighton. PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
The cast of Jumpy in rehearsal, left to right Stephen McCole, Molly Vevers, Dani Heron, Gail Watson, and Cameron Crighton. PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
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There’s a scene in Jumpy in which a mother discovers her under-age daughter is having sex. Trying to be liberal about it, but also in a panic, she comes up with a solution. “If they sleep together I want it to be at our house,” she says, adding: “It’s just a way of containing it.” The joke came to playwright April de Angelis from a conversation with a friend who had been in that situation and reacted in exactly the same way. Jumpy is all about the relationships between mothers and daughters and it was too good a line not to include. She slipped it in. “It does seem a bit evil, but it’s so unrecognisable in the play,” she says. “My friend came to the show and she went, ‘Oh my God, you’ll never guess, that happened to me!’ Thank God she doesn’t think I’ve stolen her life.”

The blur between real life and fiction is pertinent because much of Jumpy points to it being a work of autobiography. There’s a lot about the life of Hilary, the central character, that overlaps with that of De Angelis. Played at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum by the CATS award-winning Pauline Knowles, she is a woman who has hit the age of 50, has memories of protesting at Greenham Common and is dealing with a teenage daughter in the house.

When Jumpy was first staged in 2011 at London’s Royal Court, in a production starring Tamsin Greig and Doon Mackichan, the playwright herself had not long turned 50. She also had a daughter and had memories of anti-war protests on a day trip to Greenham Common. From a factual point of view, however, that’s where the similarities end.

“It’s not a true story,” she says. “Those things didn’t happen to me. The narrative is a fiction.”

Emotionally and politically, however, Jumpy is very rooted. “The experience of being a mother and having a daughter isn’t a fiction,” she says. “And the question about the state of feminism today was a genuine question that I had as my daughter was growing up. It’d be great if life just constructed a play for you, if you lived a play and then wrote it, because it’d make your life easier, but it just doesn’t work like that.”

The feminist question matters to De Angelis because of her own formative experience. Before becoming a playwright, she was an actor with Monstrous Regiment, a theatre collective that took its name – with heavy irony – from John Knox’s misogynistic pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Her years in the 1980s at the frontline of feminist activism give her a very particular perspective on the gender battles of today.

“Things were so important, it was almost like your personality was on trial,” she recalls. “Political morality was a big question. It seems like another time. Can you imagine that now? ‘What brand are you wearing?’ is what we talk about now. ‘What’s your face cream?’”

The culture-clash comedy in Jumpy happens when those two worlds collide. As the Lyceum’s publicity for Cora Bissett’s Scottish-themed production puts it: “Then she felt she could change the world, now, she can’t even change her daughter’s mind about wearing that skirt.”

De Angelis sees the funny side, of course, but she takes seriously the responsibility about bringing once marginalised views into the mainstream. “Jumpy was an attempt to write something from my perspective as a feminist that wasn’t just a silly domestic comedy,” she says. “It was meant to be accessible and political and to ask whether we have lived those ideals and whether you can live them without a movement. It was so powerful and then it all vanished.”

To teenage girls in 2016, there’s no reason Greenham Common will mean anything. The once famous peace camp was disbanded in 2000, most likely before they were born, and the all-women occupation in protest against cruise missiles on the RAF site have been consigned to history – and a non-mainstream history at that. But De Angelis believes it is “incredibly important” to remember the political gains of the past and pass them on to the next generation.

“In the women’s movement of the 70s, a massive process of consciousness-raising went on,” she says. “If you forget the history, you forget the consciousness-raising. You don’t have those thoughts available to you. Although there is a mass of literature out there, you don’t remember them. In the play, Hilary tries to explain it to her daughter Tilly; it’s a little memory capsule. Even though the play is a comedy, it is deliberately there, saying we did this amazing thing. But, of course, it is forgotten and that’s another point. What happens if it is forgotten? There was something revolutionary about those times. We used to have arguments about if we should wear mascara or whether we should sleep with other women and not men. It sounds silly, but it felt as if your whole soul was on trial. Today, there isn’t that sense of the significance of it.”

None of this is to pretend Jumpy is anything other than a mainstream comedy that enjoyed a West End run and touched a nerve about being a woman in the modern world. De Angelis is a writer who likes a laugh and therein lies one of the secrets of Jumpy’s success.

“Things are funny,” she says. “It’s the difference between what people state about what they want and what they actually do. Or the difference between the reasons they say they’re doing something and the real reasons. All those discrepancies are funny. That’s what I’m interested in. For ages I was always beating myself up for not being a radical writer, but I do like making people laugh. A director once said to me, “You don’t want people to laugh too much; it’s not just all about laughs,” but I was thinking, well, actually I do want people to laugh too much.” n

Mark Fisher

Jumpy is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, from 27 October until 12 November