21 February 2015

Happy Days at the Young Vic was bemusing and brilliant

I missed this production of Happy Days when it first came to the Young Vic but was aware that it was getting good reviews and so I paid more attention when it came back for second run. So much so that I bought my ticket for a performance in February 15 way back in March 14.

The original plan was to take in an exhibition in the afternoon, eat somewhere nice and then go to the theatre but the clock got the better of me and the plan got adjusted to a lovely walk along the South Bank from Waterloo to the Tate Modern where the only display I saw was of cakes in one of the coffee bars.

I did manage to get to The Refinery Bankside for a foodie treat. The helpful staff also went and found me a Oyster Card holder when I pointed out that there was not one with the bill and I showed them that I was using one from a previous visit. Every time that I go there I moan to myself that there is nothing like it in Richmond or Kingston where I find eating out more of a challenge than a treat.

From there it was a short walk to the Young Vic and I timed my arrival well to get there after the theatre doors had opened and so resisted the temptation for a beer and missed the hassle of queueing for one.

Inside the theatre the camera police were busy and attentive so I was unable to take any photos but the internet provided me with the picture below which was more-or-less the view that I had from my seat (B36 which cost me £35). For this production the stage was set in thrust-mode with seating on three sides. Given that Juliet Stevenson was stuck in position throughout the play the central section was definitely the place to be.

My knowledge of Beckett was somewhat limited, I had only seen Waiting for Godot many years ago and the adapted short story First Love more recently, so other than strange, I did not know what to expect. I got plenty of strange!

It is possible to over simplify Happy Days in the same way that it is Godot. A woman, Winnie, is buried in the sand and talks at length to us, herself and her mostly hidden husband Willie. Despite being buried and unable to move, Winnie is relentlessly happy. And that's about it.

With Winnie immobilised and Willie either out of sight or absent most of the time, there was very little physical action. The exception was the methodical way that Winnie gets things out of her bag and arranges them before her. These things included a toothbrush and a gun.

What drove the play, and drove it brilliantly, was the rich dialogue and Juliet Stevenson's brilliant delivery of this. This was essentially a one woman show and it was one hell of a show with one hell of a performance from the woman.

Winnie told us about her hopes for the day, it was always expected to be another happy one, and she also told some tender stories from her past. Her conversation flit between times and subjects and that kept it fresh and engaging. When Winnie spoke we wanted to listen.

There were some big themes at play, she was buried in sand after all, but Happy Days is not a play that I would pretend to understand. Some of it seemed more obvious than other bits but that may have been my misunderstanding.

The lack of an obvious plot or message only added to the play's interest and left the dialogue and Juliet Stevenson's performance at the heart of everything. I have seen some mighty fine performances over the years and this was right up there with the best of them.

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