Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Have a Nice Life

Conor Mitchell
Pleasance, London
(2003)

Among the mad whirl that is the London theatre scene, it's always rather pleasant to pay a visit to The Pleasance where the diversity of dramatic genres on offer throughout the year is a small-scale mirror of the excellence they offer at the Edinburgh Festival. And no matter what one's theatrical bent might be, one can usually be assured of quality of the highest order. This latest offering, a musical theatre venture written, composed and directed by Conor Mitchell, is no exception.

Several aspects of this production are striking, but one is remarkable: namely, the cast. Talent and team work, both with capital Ts, meet energetic ebullience (both should have capital Es), as seven performers, all from Northern Ireland, and just starting to make names for themselves, give 110%.

This is a fine example of the way in which a group of people with versatility and commitment rather than financial backing can take an idea from a rehearsed reading, to an improvised and rapidly rehearsed three-night stand at the Group Theatre in Belfast, transform it into a hit show on the Edinburgh Fringe ("kill for a ticket") and finally into a full evening's entertainment that has the punters whistling and cheering. Way to go! (as our trans-Atlantic cousins, the originators of the modern musical, say). Power to your elbow! (as they say in Ireland).

The subject of Have a Nice Life is a rich vein for both comedy and tragedy: Group Therapy (oh! Help! Do I identify with people in therapy? What would Woody Allen have to say about it? Do I want to be in group therapy with a bunch of misfits, while, I'm not a misfit: it's just that my wife/husband/lover has deserted me and my self-esteem is a bit low. Why is this woman attacking me? Who is the therapist who seems to know everything and be in control?).

Thematically, there are some fun jibes here, in particular, played out at the expense of Neville, the slightly camp psychologist with all the platitudes, who initially seems to be the fall-guy. But Neville (Chris Robinson) comes into his own in his final number, a tour de force of musical comedy and pathos with enough of Busby Berkeley thrown in to give it a tantalising sense of parody. Don't you just want to hug the guy and say: 'Yes, we know you are in pain too' before collapsing into hysterics? And when you've finally stopped choking on your laughter say: 'Get a life! You've just shown you have the power. So do it. Get a life'? This is a forte in this musical: there is ambiguity.

In the programme notes Conor Mitchell claims to be paying homage to the great writers of musicals, but I believe that while he is doing that, irony and parody, the mainstays of postmodernism, have crept in sufficiently to make us love the old genre and laugh at it too. Musically, it is a satisfying postmodern mish-mass of styles from the Broadway greats to Kurt Weill, and the choreography is as rich as it can get on a small stage with little means: superbly executed by a cast who can really shift their bodies with precision and zest: belting out the words with great voices that are complemented by a physicality that knocks your socks off.

I must say that I didn't think that the music, the lyrics and the plot, were actually as good as the cast that made this production work. Some of the songs and dances could be cut to greater effect. It is a pity to say this, but those songs that were not entirely engaging were delivered by characters more vulnerable than the others in group therapy, in the world, in the fact that they had lost their energy as human beings and a notion of how to go forward. While the lyrics were trying to give them a voice the music was working against it. There was a sentimentality here that didn't stand up to the stronger characters. And, while it was fun to see these people in group therapy, I didn't believe in the resolution. But then .we are living in a complex society, are there any resolutions?

Amongst those stronger characters, I have to mention Barbara (superbly played by Mary Moulds) whose shaman spirit mate had told her that her body had been taken over by an African man. It is a character distinguished from the others by her beliefs about her control by a demonic spirit. Part of it was humour, because all the others were 'normal', but Moulds gave a performance in her songs, expressing the eroticism and chaotic desire for control instilled in her by her (fictional, shaman possessor), that was just a joy to watch vocally and physically: what a talent! She was a blockbuster, a roller-coaster, a piece of concrete as energy hitting you. Wow, woman, go for it! What she did physically and vocally with that moment in song was the most stunning piece of the evening. Frankly, if this is what makes you insane, your shaman, and the black man invading your body, I want that too!

But they were all good. It's just great to watch so much talent, nurtured so that it can diversify into acting, singing, physicality. It's good to know that in Britain there are drama schools are that producing talent like this. I hope the status quo and the Arts' Council are going to recognise that. Recognise this project and all the work that has gone into it. And more projects like this one.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher