Box of Tricks
Tristan Bates Theatre
Kenneth Emson and Hannah Tyrell-Pinder make a good team. His ping-ponging dialogue provides ample fuel for her energetic directorial style, resulting in a show that stimulates both the eye and the ear.
In Whispering Happiness, the country - perhaps the world - has gone down the chute. Towns, overpopulated and overrun with violent gangs, have been fenced off and left to fester in their own effluvia. Call centres, built on concreted-over parks, provide the only employment, and drugs provide the only escape.
Emson's is a gradual, grey, drizzly apocalypse. It's not a setting you'd immediately think lends itself to pacey exchanges and action, but if the British know anything it's how to stay cheerful in a crisis. That goes doubly for the young and innocent, and the blind optimism of 15-year-old Hayley (Abigail Hood) is the driving force behind all the best scenes.
Her quickfire insult rallies with friend Simon - Richard James-Neale, who externalises his character's rapidly eroding innocence with an increasingly lethargic posture and a haunted expression - are a comic highlight in a bleak landscape. Arguments between two police officers introduced in Act Two (Henry Maynard and Jim Sturgeon) match the youngsters' rate, but are unlikely to bring a smile to anyone's face.
Act Two and the introduction of the policemen mark the imminent collapse of the fairytale elements that prevent the play from being mere pessimistic futurism.
Jamie Maclachlan's sinister Pirsg - hooded and leather-jacketed, his coat-tails and trouser-legs spray-painted to resemble a harlequin's motley, now scuttling like an insect, now clambering like a monkey - seems to the dissatisfied Simon like the fairytale third alternative, promising instant happiness with a few whispered words.
But once the jaded coppers show up with their suspicion of easy explanations, it becomes harder and harder for Simon (or the audience) to deny the truth about Pirsg's genuine, but decidedly non-magical, escape route.
Referencing dystopian stories alongside the Pied Piper of Hamelin fairytale, Whispering Happiness is the product of two confident creative contributors, both of whose careers surely have nowhere to go but up.
Until 4th July
Reviewer: Matt Boothman