Theatre review: Happy Days at the Young Vic

When Beckett’s Happy Days was first performed in London in 1962, Kenneth Tynan argued that it was a metaphor extended beyond its capacity. Certainly, Winnie’s claustrophobic predicament – being half-buried alive – presents an opportunity to showcase acting skills, akin to playing Lear or Hamlet.

But any fears that the Young Vic’s production will be a star vehicle for the theatrical cognoscenti are unfounded. As directed by Natalie Abrahami, Juliet Stevenson’s exceptional talent illuminates depths that explain exactly why Beckett’s writing has such lasting power.

In Vicki Mortimer’s inspired design, Winnie is not so much stuck in a mound of earth as sitting in the crook of a craggy mountain pass. Here time is implacable and humanity cannot triumph over it. An expanse of sky framed by vaudevillian-style lights burn Winnie’s eyes. Stevenson’s hair is a jauntily coiffed strawberry-blonde. This is Winnie as a middle-class WI wife, who smiles through the tears and is so well versed in self-parody and platitudes that femininity as performance is how she survives. Or not. As Winnie babbles throughout her perfectly modulated monologue, we never learn why she is there. We barely see or hear from her husband Willie (David Beames provides impressive support).

Hidden desperation

We see her rummage compulsively in her bag and the objects – a magnifying glass, comb, toothbrush, gun – provide no clear clues. When she narrates how one couple came across her, Stevenson voices both characters like they are a grotesque end-of-the-pier double act and the play’s preoccupation with surface and hidden desperation is made crystal clear. “I’d be a different woman if you lived this side but you can’t,” Stevenson implores, the self-awareness she fears rising up to haunt her. What is remarkable is how mobile Stevenson seems. In the first half, her hands flutter, as expressive as her face. In the second half with only her head visible, the harsher lighting flattens out her features but she is just as animated. Tom Gibbons’ sound – not for the faint-heated – adds a powerful element. A Freudian memory about her sexual awakening involving a naked doll in her nursery feels crass and dates the play. But, as a metaphor for loneliness, this Winnie strikes a chord that judders deeply.


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****

Until March 8.

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