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FringeReview UK 2018

Happy Now?

New Venture Theatre, Brighton

Genre: Contemporary, Dark Comedy, Drama, Theatre

Venue: New Venture Theatre Upstairs (Main)


Low Down

It was Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre who commissioned Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? that premiered at the then Cottesloe in January 2008. Its sterling revival here is directed by Claire Lewis – also costume designer. Michael Folkard – with advice from Tim McQuillen-Wright – produces a crisp set triangulated with sections (Simon Glazier leads the build). Keith Dawson’s lighting is suffused on occasion with either mint green or cerise lighting played from behind by Alex Epp to designate particular events, like a heart monitor. Ian Black’s sound design also worked by Erica Fletcher, synchs with this.


Lucinda Coxon’s recent acclaim for The Danish Girl, doesn’t obscure her reputation as a playwright – there’s a new play scheduled for Nick Hytner’s Bridge Theatre in January 2019.


It was Hytner’s National Theatre who commissioned Coxon’s Happy Now? premiered at the Cottesloe in January 2008. Hailed as the best new play in over a year it’s not surprising that Hytner’s recruited Coxon, much as he has Alan Bennett. This play’s sterling-stamped with theatre right through it. It gets a sterling revival here directed by Claire Lewis with a classical swiftness (she’s also the excellent costume designer). And with its references to re-runs of Will & Grace curiously current this seems as much a play for now as a decade ago.


Because nothing’s changed. Coxon’s pitch-perfect prescience not only noses out virtue-signalling men, but women with a nexus of guilts and desires in a world that even then was turning into ours. For charities like protagonist Kitty’s it was feeling public funds shrink and scrabbling for corporate monies. For parents the choice between solid state education and selective goal-oriented faith schools, glittering results for narrowed minds. As Kitty’s outraged lawyer-turned-oh-so-pc teacher husband Johnny that’s treason: ‘I mean they do creationism alongside the flash in the pan that is Darwinism.’ That some take less time to choose between these two than agonize over eau-de-nil or stone as wall colour.


The couple whose wall this is simultaneously tell the story – to friends of twenty years, woman to woman man to man. Coxon’s gendered pinpointing is so funny you realize you’re in the grip of a master dissector.


So how does a modern successful woman balance the perfect marriage, children, career, teetering with temptations like fidelity and the urge to sink into quiet despair?


Michael Folkard – advised by Tim McQuillen-Wright no less – produces a crisp set triangulated with sections (Simon Glazier leads the build). Centrally there’s the kitchen area whose neutral ubiquity doubles as a conference space, in white with a narrow table. Stage right is an OAP sitting room, chair and small surround in dark heather. Stage left we get a Mondrian backdrop in interlocking baby-blue, baby-pink and sofa, doubling as hotel bedroom in a climactic scene. A superb use of space.


Keith Dawson’s lighting works with tenebrous garden shadows (stage right) but otherwise it’s one of the most remarkable I’ve seen here. The set centres with a sheer white false wall, suffused on occasion with mint green or cerise lighting played from behind by Alex Epp to designate events, like a heart monitor, where Kitty’s father falters. Ian Black’s sound design also worked by Erica Fletcher, synchs with this. It’s a sovereign professional outcome.


We’re in that white zone. Kitty’s trying not to laugh at the opening joke of Simon Hudson’s magnificent Michael, an apparently in-your-face lothario who makes no bones or boner about propositioning Sophie Dearlove’s Kitty at a charity conference. This after genuinely complimenting her on a lecture she’s given in place of boss Stephanie, off with a bad throat that turns into something else. Kitty in turn recalls his fine paper. She’s Cancer Concern, he Age Awareness.


Michael salvages dignity with truth. He’s open about his desire – for all women – but equally can parry her brilliant parries such as: ‘a tiresome opportunist who tells clever women they’re beautiful and beautiful women they’re clever and hopes they’re too pissed or tired or lonely to tell the difference.’ No simple seducer, as we find out, he curiously respects women more than many who pretend to. ‘The trick is… there’s no trick.’ Dangerously, yet seductively, he understand Kitty.


Dearlove’s central performance sashays a querulous undertow through quiet fury, the quirk of rolling sandwiches and apples to her offstage children; the inquisitive (with Michael) with at times incandescent – with Johnny. Finally, it’s the despairing shudder you realize might engulf Kitty. As when she’s forgotten tomatoes in packed lunches, got dogshit between her toes and can’t access right names, even link for her keynote lecture as yet again Stephanie’s out of action.


And to cap it there’s June, Pat Boxall’s sly, self-pitying, controlling mother. We’re not surprised Kitty’s father walked out the week after she started college, but June’s hold over her daughter on her own turf is absolute. The phone’s not to be answered, though it’s hospital news. June would know. CEO-ing Kitty is reduced: Dearlove reluctantly skirmishes with Boxall… where Belarus is, not South America. Even defeated, Boxall sneers.


Much of this Kitty can only express to ‘gay best friend’ Carl, Robert Purchese’s nuance of still youthful (but not ‘in gay years’) lawyer with boyish charm. Purchese navigates Carl between empathy and complacency when challenged. Carl’s a lawyer with Johnny’s old firm. He completes the party hosted by Kitty following Johnny’s other ex-colleague: Giles Coghlin’s drunk lawyer Miles, Johnny’s closest male friend, and self-obsessed wife Bea; consummate Emmie Spencer.


Though it’s surprising when Carl’s called by Kitty in a panic attack, seeing Michael again. She doesn’t know how to react. We see Carl’s crisp-suited professional contrasting with the man who babysits, talks of magical midnight visits to zoos whilst the others work their domestic and baby socks off. At the end he floats a hydrogen balloon from a lover who never shows.


Structurally Coxon works towards a seamless Act One catastrophe. Few things since Abigail’s Party match it for delicious horror; and even more social skewering. Bea’s called in a Thai takeaway. The architect’s plans she’d hauled round to Kitty’s earlier are replaced by an imposing swatch chart. But it’s a hidden betrayal – the opening term of private St Margaret’s that daughter Hettie’s going to.


Except they’ve not told godfather Johnny, who teaches at her current comp. Johnny’s righteousness – inflected earlier when he tells Kitty off for swearing about dogshit near children – is heartfelt but wrong-headed. Johnny, who earlier is new man incarnate finessing Miles’ hardly-veiled sexism and homophobia by hauling him off to the kitchen, is more destructive himself.


Ciaran O’Connor’s performance as Johnny mixes sensitive new man with that righteous tinge you see parodied in Nuts in May, the more comical for O’Connor’s playing straight. He’s slightly menacing, hoarding resentment of salary loss for a virtue-signalling career: O’Connor’s body towers, taut. A clue. And there’s a comma lesson!


Johnny’s decision re-affirms Coxon’s prescience: high-fliers switching to teach. This month Radio 4 features Lucy Kellaway’s dropping her FT salary by 80% to teach aged fifty-eight, taking fifty high-fliers with her: barristers, bankers, the Johnny type.


Coxon shows too it’s often men who engineer crises, letting women deliver the coup-de-grace. Bea’s intransigence isn’t helped by Miles, in Coghlin’s alert, laddish reading of a bitter man. Coghlin measures Miles in voice and gesture, nudging us to dislike him yet applaud his no-prisoners honesty. He’s told his wife not jokingly in public, he’s stopped loving her. Here he sides with Johnny. Not as you’d expect: ‘I’d be delighted if both kids turned out to be dimmer than me. Who wants to be outshone by their offspring?’


This drips poison on Bea, indeed every parent. But does it reveal male competitiveness crouched behind, something parents don’t dare admit? Spencer – who can do anything – builds her unsympathetic part up from smiling purposefulness in the first dinner scene, to naked steel in the second. Like June, very differently, she’s in command. Needing no self-pity Spencer’s Bea stamps her values, an ex-PA whose career is CEO-ing a household. Yet her anger has reasons. Unloved, she’s retreated into a carapace perfecting of eau-de-nil. And when she shatters, the late-arriving Thai curry gets what Bea wants to vent over a possibly-returning Johnny.


After a chain-reaction and Bea’s ultimatum Coghlin icily delivers a line worth seeing the show alone for, well almost. A thrilling end to Act One.


Act Two’s fluid, rapid in dissolves. Miles in AA is now camped on Kitty, there’s a scene where Miles relates he’s tried to replicate the zoo experience Carl outlined and finds himself crying. There’s a lapse, a garden. Kitty’s tizzying; monitors bleep. Carl on the phone brings bad news. And Kitty’s suddenly in funeral black alongside Michael.


What follows is theatrical platinum. Telling you there’s a pillow fight won’t prepare you for exactly why this happens. And there’s some final surprising advice from Bea, who springs a surprise too.


New Venture’s produced three contemporary plays by women in a row, each superbly judged. This is the best. After Coxon (born 1962) there’s a generation worth several festivals. From 1964-c.1994 there’s Helen Edmundson, Judy Upton, debbie tucker green, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Abi Morgan, Charlotte Jones, Sarah Kane, Vivienne Franzmann, Nina Raine, Laura Wade, Penelope Skinner, Vicky Jones, Jane Upton, E. V. Crowe, Lucy Prebble, Elinor Cook, Jessica Swale, Anoushka Warden, Lucy Kirkwood, Ella Hickson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Polly Stenham, Alice Booth, A.S. Gupta, Cordelia Lynn, Michelle Barnette, Phoebe Eclair-Powell, Karen Laws, Lulu Raczka… These writers aren’t just good, they’re often in the top flight; some are major playwrights anywhere.


In this marvellous play though, Coxon’s wind-up structure unwinds to a climax utterly satisfying in its resolutions, even though these lie, perhaps, in the future. Not in a re-run of Will & Grace, but again, there’s prophesy. Dearlove, Hudson, O’Connor, Spencer, Coghlin, Purchese and Boxall are faultless in their faultlines of flawed, frazzled, frustrated characters. Inevitably we identify with Dearlove, aspiring everywoman who apart from Purchese’s Carl is the one unselfish coper with every other character. Coxon ensures we feel there’s an option she can take; and feel she’s entitled. However fine the original 2008 cast, you won’t miss them with this ensemble’s revival of a stunning contemporary play. See it.