running until 1 December
Another night, another new venue for me in south London. This time it was my first visit to Theatre N16 (now actually located in SW12, above The Bedford pub). Happiness Is A Cup of Tea has done the rounds on the fringe theatre scene for a little while and has continues to develop throughout this time, but it’s the first chance I’ve had to catch the show. As I mentioned in my diary preview, the title of the show sums up my attitude to life fairly well, so I was already feeling optimistic.
Written and performed by Annie McKenzie, this one-woman show is a reflection on life and death; on the complex relationships we have with the ones closest to us; and the tangles and tangents that run around in our heads when we’re alone and thinking hard. McKenzie’s character, Fiona Nash, has returned to Beachy Head – home to many childhood memories – to work out what on earth she should say in her mum’s eulogy. She’s still reeling from the discovery that her mother was even ill, never mind that she’s gone forever, and her anguished ramblings stir up memories from years before: her father’s death, fairy tales she heard as a child, the momentous acts and the dark moments of her mother’s life.
This is a simple show in many ways, but it is effective in painting a knotty but utterly believable picture of one family. Heartache, humour, resentment, devotion… the tangle of different emotions is recognisable and never melodramatic. McKenzie’s script is cleverly crafted to tread a line between some beautiful lyrical and poetic passages, and the more earthy, mundane and blunt lines. Yet we don’t feel the mood changes as sharp twists or bumps in the road of the script; everything moves fluidly, creating a voice for the character that hums with authenticity. McKenzie’s performance perfectly captures this, her subtle rhythmic changes allowing the monologue to sway between different emotional pitches without straining too hard for the big or small moments. Her mannerisms are a delightful addition to the delivery: scrunching her nose, shrugging, and giggling to herself as the memories come tumbling out.
The monologue shifts between two narratives, woven together: the story of Fiona’s family, which leads the show, and the folk story of the fisherman and the skeleton woman, told with the help of charming hand puppets. It’s a risky choice that could make the show too twee; yet the dark edge to the story and the gentle humour within it fit well with the overall tone of the piece.
At about 50 minutes, Happiness Is A Cup of Tea is still meaty enough to get your brain working and your emotions flowing. It’s a poignant reminder of the transience of life, of the complexities of grief and of the resonance of small moments in life. In an isolated setting, with the real-life trains of Balham station adding to the rumblings of the Beachy Head storm, McKenzie creates pathos, charm and an instant connection with the audience through her unapologetically honest script. It’s a gentle show, and some may argue the narrative doesn’t develop far enough. Some things are left vague – how did her father die? Who is ringing the public telephone nearby? What caused the strained relationship between Fiona and her sister? – but for me it’s a brave decision not to stuff the show with too many strands, or to tie everything up neatly with a bow. After all, life isn’t like that. McKenzie’s work is a success on its own terms, and this is a touching little gem of a show.
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