Fringe review: Keeping Up With The Joans *****

Arron Usher in Keeping Up With The Joans. Pic: Comp
Arron Usher in Keeping Up With The Joans. Pic: Comp
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Pleasance Beyond

IF you loved Murder, Marple and Me two Fringes ago, you’ll be delighted that playwright Philip Meeks – and his affinity for old dears with dark secrets – is back with a new play full of heart and hearty laughs.

Until their falling out, Zillah Mint and Kitty Feathers were close friends, united by their love of am dram. Both performed the lead in Shaw’s Saint Joan, but only one received praise from Dame Sybil Thorndike, for whom the role was written. Sadly, the ravages of time and encroaching dementia mean that neither woman recalls just who it was precisely.

The reunion of these friends-turned-enemies might have descended into Whatever Happened to Baby Joan, but while there’s bitchery aplenty, it’s a testament to all involved that the camp never overwhelms the craft. The three leads are each given moments in the sun, but Susan Penhaligon, as Zillah, has the meatiest role and does the most with it. Like the girl with the curl, when she’s outrageous she’s hilarious, but when she’s vulnerable she will break your heart. She makes great use of her voice to convey the character’s pretentiousness and self-delusion. Katy Manning is a winsome and winning Kitty, full of kindness and conciliation, all twinkling eyes and that great, gorgeous smile. As Gary/Billy, Arron Usher starts out fey and fussy and grows in stature and substance even as his persona becomes more ghostly – but to say more would spoil the plot’s twists and turns. Suffice to say all is not what it seems at Rye Hill Retirement Home.

Run ends 24 August

LEE RANDALL