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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HAPPY NOW?
at the National Theatre (Cottesloe)

HAPPINESS IS....
By Matt Wolf

  Olivia Williams and Anne Reid/Ph:Tristram Kenton

The question mark of the title hangs tantalizingly over Lucinda Coxon's extremely accomplished and likable play, Happy Now?, which has arrived at the National Theatre's Cottesloe in a slick, smart production from Thea Sharrock that is sure to hit that playhouse's audience where it lives. Indeed, in a happier theatrical climate, Happy Now? would have secured a perch on the West End from the get-go, boasting as it does something of a star name in Olivia Williams, who may be forever condemned to being known to a larger public as Bruce Willis's wife in the film The Sixth Sense.

That the ever-alert, vividly intelligent Williams effortlessly commandeers a play that might be for 21st-century theatregoers what something like Paul Mazursky's defining An Unmarried Woman was for cineastes when I was growing up only adds to the air of confidence surrounding a production that should immediately land Coxon the television berth of her choice. Far from being intended patronizingly, that remark is meant only to honor this writer's ability to sketch in character quickly and adroitly, and to keep numerous narrative plots on the boil without visible strain. I want to be happy, Williams's Kitty announces near play's end, and who among us of whatever generation hasn't nursed that same desire, however much they may choose to articulate it or not. (That said, I vividly recall the great Kate Nelligan telling me once in an interview that she finally left her adoptive home, Britain, because she couldn't stand living in a country where, in her view, people didn't care whether they were happy or not.)

You can feel the stresses on Kitty that might propel her toward unhappiness. The breadwinner in a household in which her husband, Johnny (Jonathan Cullen), has embarked upon a new, not very well-paid job as a teacher, Kitty, we feel, is tiring of being all things to all people and even says as much toward the close. So it's not altogether surprising that she would be at least interested in the apparently effortless smoothness of the play's resident seducer, the heavy-set Michael (Stanley Townsend), whom she meets at a conference at which he is there representing Age Awareness even as Kitty is in attendance on behalf of Cancer Concern. The sex is on the table, announces Michael, as played by Townsend with his characteristic aplomb, and it's one of the emotional push-me/pull-you's of the text that Kitty doesn't at first respond. Instead, she seeks solace in the ready support of her gay best friend, a lawyer named Carl (Stuart McQuarrie, doing well in a somewhat contrived role), and makes periodic visits home to tend to her dying father. Those familial duties in turn bring Kitty into brief but hilariously telling contact with her outspoken mother (the wonderful Anne Reid), the sort of person who can and quickly does turn all talk of pain to herself. If Happy Now? were a TV series - which isn't entirely an implausible suggestion - Reid would get all the zingers not already coopted by Townsend's Michael, who has a habit of speaking in punchlines. (He makes reference to FFF, which stands - you guessed it! - for fucking for freedom. )

Coxon throughout taps a not always easily articulated well of dissatisfaction that is by no means limited to the middle classes, though it would be a real mistake to dismiss her play as a glib portrait of discomfort among those comfortable enough to inhabit Jonathan Fensom's intriguingly faceless, two-tiered set: itself a visual emblem of blandness behind which beats an all too genu

 


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