Gilly Gilly review – Cush Jumbo’s searing play about abuse let down by mundane details

Cush Jumbo and Phyllida Lloyd worked together on the latter’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy which, Jumbo has said, gave her the confidence to write her debut play, Josephine and I.

They are back together here, Lloyd as the director of Jumbo’s audio drama, which is also performed by her for this Audible Originals production. It is a monologue about the legacy of child sexual abuse and how its psychological damage is passed down so that it leaves its traumatic ripples across generations.

It is delivered with passion and rage by a grownup daughter recalling her mother’s abuse. But Jumbo’s characteristically charismatic performance cannot quite carry this play, which builds too stutteringly to its central theme. Touching on similar matter of shame and family culpability as Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, it lacks the same searing power. In its structure, it leaves us wondering where it is going and then drops its bombshells too late for the subject to be satisfyingly unpacked.

It begins as Jumbo’s character struggles to let herself into her grandmother’s house. Once in, she begins leafing though a Delia Smith cookbook and making scones. It feels liked a circuitous start filled with irrelevant detail as she clatters around the kitchen, soaking a dirty bowl, reflecting on when non-stick pans were invented, reading passages from Delia’s book out aloud – with an oddly tinkly musical accompaniment every time she reads.

Finally, we get to the nub: “Delia Smith sounds like a mother should,” she says and segues into childhood memories. Performed as a direct address to her mother, the play rests almost entirely on backstory, which brings jarring exposition. “You were a psychiatric nurse, mum,” she tells her mother, and the script feels in need of finessing, especially when she comes across photographs which all too conveniently progress the backstory.

Too much mundane detail weighs down the narrative, including a family shopping list at one point. It builds a world, but it feels extraneous in a play of just over an hour long. The heart of the story is revealed around 15 minutes before the end. Then, there is a rise in pitch, intensity and horror – but it takes too long to arrive and feels like the drama is beginning just as it winds up.