Happy Now? @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Olivia Williams
Jonathan Cullen
Emily Joyce
Anne Reid
Dominic Rowan
Stanley Townsend

directed by
Thea Sharrock
I was going to begin this review by commenting on how Lucinda Coxon’s new play resembles a sitcom.

But that’s not quite right. It more closely resembles one of those hour long ‘comedy dramas’ they’re so fond of screening at 9pm on ITV1: a post-Cold Feet slice of middle class marital angst.

The whole thing has a very televisual feel. From its opening music to the structuring of the scenes and the sketching of the characters, everything seemed to be more geared towards the needs of screen rather than stage.

Olivia Williams plays the harassed heroine, Kitty, an executive of a major cancer research charity, who spends her time trotting between conferences. Her husband has recently chucked in his high-flying legal job to retrain as a teacher and she has two young children at home (though, quite tellingly, they are never seen; little snippets of Chucklevision and shouted questions about whether they can have their tea in front of the telly are all we glimpse of their existence).

She also has to cope with the illness of her father, a man she has never had a good relationship with, a man who may well now be dying, as well as the amorous attentions of a fellow charity big-wig she meets in a hotel after one of her conferences. Stretched to breaking point and unable to communicate her unhappiness to her husband, the man’s advances start to look all the more appealing.

While her relationship is starting to crack, the marriage of her friends, Miles and Bea, is in danger of shattering completely. Miles has a drink problem and a caddish charm that, only partially, conceals a cruel streak, his gregariousness hiding his sense of emptiness. Bea, on the other hand, invests all her emotional energy into picking the right shade of off-white for the new downstairs toilet.

Coxon’s point seems to be that these people have wealth and good jobs and kids and all the things that most people aspire to and yet they are ridiculously unhappy. This is especially true of the women in the play, who have both their own expectations and the expectations and demands of those around them to deal with. But, though many women may recognise something of themselves in Kitty, Coxon offers her audience little beyond this initial recognition; her characters make no movement towards change and the play does not really address the idea of change at all. Even the woefully unexplored character of the ‘gay best friend’, whose life initially appears more vibrant and satisfying, is far from content. Happiness seems a remote and intangible thing, a moment curled up on the sofa watching Will And Grace the most you can realistically wish for.

Fortunately, the acting raised things up a level, Williams made the ever-stressed Kitty into a reasonably sympathetic character, adding a degree of nuance that is absent in the writing, and Jonathan Cullen is also very good as Kitty’s earnest husband, a man keen to do some good in the world yet oblivious to the problems that exist in his own house. Dominic Rowan is wonderfully arch as the charismatic but increasingly pathetic Miles and Ann Reid is a total delight as Kitty’s frightful mother.

Thea Sharrock’s direction is also on the money, pulling everything together, and making sure the production never flags. There are a good few lines that raise a laugh (though there are several more that you suspect were supposed to be funny and missed the mark), and it was entertaining enough, for what it was, but it was dramatically unsatisfying and, as a play, it lacked a vital something.

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