THEATRE REVIEW: Happy New

21 June 2013

Trafalgar Studios

until 29 June 2013

Trailer: HappyNew2013
 
 

It’s hard to explain the plot of this play without making it sound totally farcical, but here goes — on New Year’s Eve, two brothers are facing up to the long-term effects caused by their abandonment in a chicken coop. Yes, I know. Yet Brendan Cowell makes this an utterly convincing tale, as Danny (William Troughton) and Lyle (Joel Samuels) struggle to rehabilitate themselves into everyday life many years after this unusual form of childhood trauma: they seek the ironically-labelled ‘Australian Dream’, but fear to leave their apartment.

Cowell’s script crackles into life: it is extremely wordy, but high energy performances ensure that nothing of the dense dialogue is wasted as words fizz and tumble across the stage. Troughton and Samuels are a great double act, their energies bouncing off each other as they negotiate the intricate script with apparent ease. Their conversation is somehow macho and camp all at the same time — treated seriously, but eliciting plenty of laughs; hinting at a fractured past, but creating a seamless partnership. It is the arrival of Pru (Lisa Dillon), however, which really injects fire into this production. Her bitter, angry rant is definitely the funniest ‘scorned woman’ I’ve seen on stage, as her fury at Danny’s betrayal provokes a stream of insults and outrage delivered with hilarious ferocity and flouncing. Dillon certainly starts as she means to go on, as she steals the show throughout this fast-paced production.

Even if you didn’t know already, there is something about Happy New that is distinctly not British. This is not to take anything away from our home-grown talent, but there is speed and sparkiness in this piece which marks it out from the crowd — as well as a certain brashness and bravery which enables this concept and its densely-packed script to succeed. Australian writer and director of the play Brendan Cowell was in the audience on this occasion (which preceded a Q&A session that I was sadly unable to stick around for — I would have loved to hear more about the thinking behind this piece) and it was a joy to seem him enjoying his work as much as anyone else. He has exuberant talent which still has room to develop if he continues to have such strong casts alongside him.

Brendan Cowell
Photo: Eva Rinaldi

In the later stages of the play, Lily Arnold’s set design intelligently recreates the chicken coop from the brother’s apartment, in which they now imprison themselves. Seeing this flashback enables the audience to disentangle some of the mystery behind the trauma, and the interjections of Pru’s news reports and interviews are darkly comic. Yet is from this point onwards that the play starts to drag: having seen their past, it does not seem to take us anywhere new when we return to Danny and Lyle’s present, and the rather complex plot arc gets stuck. The last section loses the vivacity that is so vital in carrying the wordy script, and energy fizzles out. It is sad that Brendan Cowell has made the all-too-common error of stretching this play beyond its potential: it is important to know when to stop, to preserve the fizz and energy before it lags. I could feel myself getting restless — such a shame for a performance that had me immersed and intrigued up until this point.

Happy New has the perfect mix of darkness and light: at times it is very funny indeed, but there are serious elements here which prevent this from becoming too frothy or farcical. When Danny and Lyle fall back into their chicken-like ways, with uncontrollable clucks and jerks of the head, somehow nobody laughs: the quiet, uncomfortable horror of the situation is apparent. The fact that the tone is pitched so perfectly, and that the cast — particularly Lisa Dillon and Joel Samuels — have a sharp and energetic grasp on their challenging dialogue, means that its wordiness and its over-long duration can just about be forgiven. It may need a little editing, but this cracker of a play is certainly worth crossing the road for.

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