Edinburgh Fringe 2022
Billed as an online show in real life, where two characters transitioning in opposite directions meet online and we follow as their friendship develops through typed messages that they voice (hence ‘online’). A queer romcom.
Part of the originality of Happy Meal is that writer Tabby Lamb (they/she) has chosen a style of storytelling that is via the online, text-based meeting and growth of friendship between Alec and Bette, engagingly played by Sam Crerar (they/he) and Allie Daniel (she/her) respectively. The set consists of two booths, that are cleverly used as projection screens to display the messages being shared and websites the characters visit or build. The characters both have their own booths that represent their online presence, so nearly all the drama consists of them separate, voicing their keyboard activities. We do get “off line” briefly twice but pretty much without the characters interacting or meeting physically.
The drama is set in unspecified years but clearly during the advent of online lives, with sound effects such as dial-up modems that superbly bring back the frustrating horrors of early internet life for all audience members of a certain age. The story takes us through the various stages of growing friendships; getting to know you, upsetting each other, misunderstandings, uncertainty of sharing your vulnerabilities, mutual support, positive feedback, sharing discoveries and so on. As Alec and Bette are both transitioning, and as the years go by and they have other formative experiences (such as Alec going to university) which they share and support each other through, the two form bonds on many more levels than most friendships. The audience gets insights into aspects of transitioning and the minutiae and realities of the lives and common experiences of those transitioning, which is eye-opening and fascinating, even though the dialogue sometimes comes over as didactic and heavily information-giving. It is sad to hear the characters agonise about how visible they can be, how safe/unsafe they feel in public, and what hostility or danger they might face, as their transitioning progresses. The sadness is heightened by the realisation that decades later, all these dangers and dilemmas still face today’s Alecs and Bettes.
What gives Happy Meal its originality in staging, though, creates a problem for the dialogue and the emotional connection between the characters and thus for the audience, a problem not totally solved by the direction and performances. Because the characters are voicing their online written communications, the style of delivery of these lines stays the same throughout the play. We get a slightly cold, distanced, “I am reading out an email” feel to much of the speech, and so the connection between the characters never reaches the intimacy or variety of emotions that we get when two characters are face to face and talking in real time with all the nuances, subtext and emotions that make interpersonal conversations so rich, funny and moving. Consequently, the (comedy) drama as a whole has a distanced feel with few big laughs and although we follow the story, we are not moved nearly as much as we might be for the fascinating, seismic journeys such as those that Alec and Bette are on. Sometimes the form of storytelling can get in the way of great stories being told, which feels like the case here.