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Old Money, Hampstead Theatre, London


Women who get a new lease of life through merry widowhood aren't a rare breed in either life or art.

The twist here, though, comes from the way that Sarah Wooley's comedy Old Money –  set in 2008 and premiered in Terry Johnson's wittily staged production -  propels the classic scenario into an age of recession where, for the first time since the Second World War, younger generations can no longer expect a more prosperous future than their parents.  

First seen looking like a numb husk at the funeral, Maureen Lipman's very touching and funny Joyce faces an existence likely to crushed in one direction by her querulous, controlling mother (“Twelve funerals I've been to this year. Twelve and it's only August”) and in the other by her materialistic daughter Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman). The latter is a call centre manager, lumbered with a useless musician-husband, pregnant with a third child, and stuck in a Colliers Wood maisonette that the couple can't afford on one income. 

It will give Joyce a “purpose”, her daughter feels, to do the after-school care three times a week.  Despite the threat of repossession and her unglamorous work-place (“the dress code isn't 'sex in the city''” complains her spouse), Fiona thinks it's her natural right to be high-maintenance.  So another raison d'etre for her mother is to be touched for sizeable loans. 

The idea that Joyce might now want a life of her own never enters the heads of her nearest and dearest.  But then she buys a striking red coat from Bond Street and, branching out via afternoon trips to the opera and Regent's Park, she eventually finds a new friend in Candy (Nadia Clifford), a young stripper in the pub where Joyce accidentally fetches up. 

Soon she is knocking back flutes of champagne in the Ritz with her pal and opening up a trunk in here attic full of the lovely gowns she bought but never wore (with a strong hint here that the well-off, much older husband she was forced to marry may have been gay). 

The justice that Joyce metes out to her family and the future she embarks on at the end have perhaps a neatness associated more with fable than with realistic comedy. 

But, in sensitively conveying the considered and courageous way the heroine lets herself flower, Lipman's performance shows you that a seventy-year-old woman can emerge from the prison of suffocating propriety with dignity enhanced.

To 12 Jan; 0207 722 9301