Happy Now?

Lucinda Coxon
RNT Cottesloe
(2008)

The answer to the question raised by Lucinda Coxon, and rock musician Michelle Branch in this play's borrowed hit theme tune "Are You Happy Now?", is a resounding "no" - at least for the 98% of the time.

The good news is that while each of the central characters endures the kind of lows that creep up even on the well-to-do middle classes, the audience has a lovely time observing them.

The central character is Olivia Williams' cancer charity executive, Kitty. The mother of two young children, she becomes the family's breadwinner when her somewhat timid husband Johnny, played by Jonathan Cullen, gives up his highflying job in a legal practice to give something to the community as a comprehensive school teacher.

This theoretically happy couple, aged around 40 and doing worthwhile jobs that they enjoy, are not helped by the people who surround them.

Their best friends, Dominic Rowan and Emily Joyce as Miles and Bea, seemingly have nothing in common other than mutual dislike.

Tall Miles still works for the legal firm that Johnny left but his life is devoted to emptying bottles of liquor and delivering cynically rude comments to his long-suffering wife and friends. Tiny Bea is a mother whose decision-making capabilities are nicely summed up by her inability to choose the paint for her living-room walls.

The happiest member of this circle is the legal firm's boss, Carl. This gay executive, played by Stuart McQuarrie, is comfortable with himself and rather proud to have hooked a pretty but unseen youth twenty years younger and completely devoid of grey matter. In this play though, happiness does not last and even laid-back Carl has been deserted long before the interval.

The older generation also add to Kitty's woes. She is mortally insulted at a conference by a cuddly bear of a man with a bad line in jokes, Stanley Townsend's Michael. This ageing Irish Don Juan with little physical appeal but the gift of the gab, boldly predicts at the start of the play that Kitty, like every other woman. will end up in bed with him. Readers will have to buy a ticket if they want to find out whether he gets lucky.

The final member of the cast is that excellent actress, Anne Reid who possibly had her finest moment in The Mother playing opposite the future James Bond, Daniel Craig. In a cameo role as Kitty's self-centred mother, she twice steals the show. She is at her best (or worst) complaining about her own toothache as her estranged husband fights for his life in hospital.

For two and a quarter hours, Lucinda Coxon mixes slightly soapy plotting with spot-on observations about life in the comfortable classes. In terms of affluence, they have never had it so good but the pressures of working too hard and sustaining relationships prove surprisingly difficult even for the super intelligent.

By the end, one can easily understand why each member of a couple infuriates the other but also what had attracted them in the first place, although the reason why Miles and Bea got married is a sadly accurate reflection on so many doomed relationships.

Theo Sharrock smoothly directs a superbly cast set of actors who work well together and all of whom have great moments of comedy and pathos.

On occasion, Lucinda Coxon tries a little too hard to give us jokes but she finds humour in the oddest situations. She also gives the master of the stage fight, Terry King, what must be his most unusual assignment as a very drunk Kitty and Michael duel almost to the death with cushions from a hotel sofa.

This kind of play justifies Nicholas Hytner's policy of using the Cottesloe to showcase contemporary new writing. Happy Now? is both perceptive and funny and speaks volumes about exactly the kind of people who are likely to fill the theatre during its run.

When Michelle Branch asks the question again at the closing curtain, it is a pretty good bet that most audience members will initially say yes. Whether, on reflection, all of them will really feel comfortable having had the mirror held up to their foibles is another matter. That, though, is the mark of challenging theatre.

Philip Fisher