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FringeReview UK 2023

Hope has a Happy Meal

Royal Court a Co-Production with Sister

Genre: Comedic, Contemporary, Drama, LGBTQIA+, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Sci-fi, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs


Low Down

A balloon dystopia announces Tom Fowler Hope has a Happy Meal. It’s a smiley killer-clown place with real clowns; very funny at times though charged with melancholy for what might have been. Despite one or two moments, Hope feels a solid world, rather than a sketchy work distended into a play. Fowler’s settling into himself, definitely both worth seeing and pursuing.

Written by Tom Fowler and Directed by Lucy Morrison, Designed by Naomi Dawson, Original Lighting Designer Anna Watson, Sound Designer Annie May Fletcher, Movement Director Johnny Riordan, Fight Director Brett Yount, Assistant Director Julia Levai, Stage Managers Ting Evelin Thomas, Caoimhe Regan

Till July 8th


A balloon dystopia announces Tom Fowler Hope has a Happy Meal, directed by Lucy Morrison at the Royal Court Upstairs. It’s a smiley killer-clown place with real clowns.

The eponymous Hope (Laura Checkley) returns after 24 years’ unspecified absence, to a country recognisably unrecognisable: The Republic of Koka-Kola with its techno-serfdom, police-state capitalism  is so nearly here. With Tesco’s, BP and Facebook referenced it could be anywhere global, but with Strawberry Fields commune you get the country vibe.

Starting with a shaggy joke worthy of a Ken Campbell off-cut, related to a passenger who can cap it (first of Nima Taleghani’s parts) Hope on her return at the airport quickly picks up friends and that killer-clown (Felix Scott’s first role, with Ronald MacDonald garb and appetite) as she’s grilled, found after quizzing “the worst person in the world” and rescued from waterboarding by  freedom-fighting nurse (Amaka Okafor) and bonds with Waitress Isla (Mary Malone) escaping with her murderd siste’rs baby as they make their escape through friendly lorry drivers singing Country and Western (Scott again)

It’s not going to turn into that movie, They encounter Alex (Taleghani in his main role) as hangdog Ranger about to hang himself because the Facebook Forest and job’s ben deleted. Hapless, Taleghani manages the clown pathos that previous clown doesn’t, indeed has great lines too. “You’ve just given me fucking rope burn” complains the would-be suicide. Alex and Isla quickly bond, pursued only by Hope’s quest to find her sister Lor (who she swears she’s in contact with) and Officer Wayne (Scott again), Isla’s murderous brother-in-law whom they capture. His is the part where Brett Yount’s fight direction is most in evidence. The picaresque energy has to end; when they find Lor (Okafor) and shotgun the gear changes.

There’s an immediate light-bulb dip but deepening of character. Lor’s fierce with accusations and relays flashes of Hope’s earlier backstory, though not her motive in flight. Hope’s like some unfinished Old Master. A bare cartoon sketch ideal for fables for the kind of play this sometimes resembles – Rory Mullarkey in particular – and another part of the painting in fine oil detail. The intense sibling relationship tells, beautifully lit as elsewhere by Anna Watson to note sudden jump-cuts (also tight movement by Johnny Riordan) when they proceed to drunk bonding after circling each other.

Checkley, excellent throughout, a mixture of innocence and determination, yet inscrutable, is at her finest with Okafor’s blistering Lor. Taleghani, also a hapless ex-husband (with New wife Malone, when confronted by Hope) is particularly affecting as Alex, and as an Angel, where Checkley’s monologue to a dead mother again pulls against the cartoonish and fabulous nature of the work; and says it shouldn’t pull to the cartoonish, but stick with the play’s truth. With characters like Isla too, whom Malone inhabits with laconic tenderness, this play might be more solid told in another 20 minutes (it currently comes in at about 92).

There’s troubling notes with Wayne’s imprisonment and denouement, and the reason Hope returns makes her 24 year absence baffling. That time away might have been ideal for Hope to register the sheer difference, or how it has roots in our time: techno-serfdom, global south enslavement, polarised living standards with some scooping out a still bearable living after climate change. Fowler clearly doesn’t want realism to intrude on his fable, but he’s made it a component part by creating a fraught sibling relationship, and setting the play in a future UK with roots still in this one.

Naomi Dawson’s set is an effective neon-lit world: since Upstairs is mainly bare boards and sawdust till a commune shuffles out its wooden self at the midpoint. Before that, we’re mainly confined to a multi-level gantry at one end with afore-mentioned balloons with blue-sky décor and hollowed out areas below doing service throughout.

The denouement has a sketchy outfall, but ends elegantly on questions. It’s an absorbing storyline, with some memorable characters, very funny at times though charged with melancholy for what might have been; and despite one or two moments, feels a solid world, rather than a sketchy work distended into a play. Fowler’s settling into himself; definitely both worth seeing and pursuing.