Happy and Married?

Madani Younis
Rich Mix in association with Freedom Studios
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
(2008)

Production photo

That Madani Younis is an “Award Winner” is the one piece of information of which prospective audiences can be quite sure. Every pre/reviewer (now including myself) and every jot of publicity makes sure to mention it. Not for the first time, I’m left wondering what expectations an art award (in this case, from the South Bank Show) can really set up in the mind of the ticket-buyer. Is it a seal of approval that might make the edge more comfortable? Without that imprimatur, Happy and Married? might have been a difficult show to market. As we flutter round such terms as “Surrealist”, “dynamic” and “puppetry”(? – don’t know how that one crept in) alarm bells might start to ring – we don’t quite have a critical framework within which to describe what we hope people will want to watch.

In the event, the smallish audience seemed fairly undemonstrative (except for the chap who, inexplicably in the context, took photographs with his mobile phone, a deplorable first for any NS show I’ve attended.) From the start it was going to be off-beat in a distinctly self-aware way. Tilted acting area in squares of green, trap doors, small climbing frame, toilet balanced on scaffolding – the words “physical theatre” are practically tattooed on the atmosphere. Yup, we’re into that sort of devised drama which can cut and shape its playing environment to order. My problem here is that however many musical, artistic and dramatic collaborators contribute to this sort of entertainment, you don’t have a play – and sometimes the play really is the thing.

There, I’ve said it – I know this brands me as Ante-Diluvian and unashamed, but devised theatre does have to work awfully hard (harder, I suspect, than its creators always realise) to make up for that central structure around which performance used to be based. That said, Happy and Married? was both intelligent and controlled in what it offered, impeccably performed and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but I struggled to get a handle on something that was commenting on the state of marriage via symbols, strangeness and disconnected little excursions into personal weirdness. In many ways this was pure sit-com territory (mis-matched young couple with cherished secrets, his mother looming from the other end of the phone, her grandmother dead but a constant point of reference). Trouble was, at moments it lurched perilously close to presenting a sit-com, but then could stumble back without warning to a much more stylised way of playing.

And yes, I’m aware that this was part of the game – marriage seen from the inside is a roller-coaster ride of tangled intentions and expectations, with both partners’ emotional baggage weighing very much more than either expected. So we jump from the fairly naturalistic issue of husband Ron’s (Dharmesh Patel) relationship with his unseen mother (she’s about to retire, has been giving him an allowance which he calls pocket-money and may have unreasonable expectations) to the overtly odder one of his obsession that the squirrels are out to get him. Meanwhile Marion (Susana Alcantud), extravagantly Spanish and far from home, trails memories of an earlier marriage to an unattractive cousin who was great in bed. She also aspires to play the triangle at a classical level, sings while hanging upside down on the climbing frame and carries around the (stolen) ashes of her dead grandmother in a Russian doll. The off-stage (or dead) characters loom large as counters in the game the couple is playing, each edging for space and emotional opportunity, each using their families and their pasts to define and claim their present roles. It’s like a micro-soap-opera, but recast into an energetic theatrical shorthand with music, gesture and a high-keyed style of acting.

I was set to feel disengaged from this, but the absolute assurance of the performers made it far more involving than I’d expected. Approached in a less consistent and co-ordinated way, this would have skirted the dread region of the self-indulgent, a pit into which “devised theatre” can topple without even being aware of the fall. There were enough telling moments to make up for a lack of structure, enough insights to forge connections through the artificiality of the presentation and enough brilliantly odd details to outweigh the sense of it being weird for the sake of weirdness. At times, though, it was a pretty close-run thing.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson