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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Happy Days
by Lizzie Loveridge

There will always be the bag.
--- Winnie
Happy Days
Felicity Kendall as Winnie
(Photo: Nobby Clarke)
Forty two years after it was first performed, Samuel Beckett's mysterious play comes to London's commercial West End to the Arts Theatre, the very theatre where Beckett's seminal work Waiting For Godot was first played in English. Happy Days is essentially a one woman play about Winnie who is buried up to her waist in sand in the first act, and up to her neck, in the second. We see Willie, her husband but he says almost nothing.

Happy Days has been described as Beckett's most cheerful play. So here is a woman imprisoned by the environment who prattles away about the mundane and every so often reminds us what a happy day she is having. She gets on with brushing her teeth and putting on her hat as if she were getting ready to go out. I was told that this play is about the indomitable human spirit, how a woman of as few intellectual resources as Winnie appears to have, can still rise above her disastrous situation and find an optimism, a purpose.

She busies herself with the contents of her bag, a capacious Gladstone bag, one of them a revolver which she handles lovingly. She describes the minutiae of her family life and poignantly towards the end makes this comment on her marriage. To Willie, who has appeared in a top hat, morning suit and white gloves (not unlike Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit) she recalls when he said to her, "I worship you. Will you be mine? Then nothing from that day forth, only titbits from Reynold's News." Willie has taken to reading from the Situations Vacant column in the newspaper. Just as you think things could not get any worse, in the second act, imprisoned up to her neck, she cannot console herself with the contents of her bag.

Miss Kendall speaks Winnie in a soft Irish brogue which emphasises the rhythm of the words. The last desolate look she gives is heart breaking, coming as it does on top of such determined ""looking on the bright side". True Beckett's words achieve a kind of lyricism all of their own although there were times when I wished Miss Kendall could have slowed her delivery somewhat so that I could appreciate the poetry. But it is a good performance with a gentle and mildly desperate, understated interpretation of emotion.

Sir Peter Hall has directed Happy Days before when Samuel Beckett was still alive and he describes in the programme some of his memories of the 1976 production at the National with Peggy Ashcroft in the role. People remember Hall's 1976 ending when Willie crawls towards the gun, maybe to shoot Winnie in an act of mercy. That didn't happen in this production.

The director's daughter, Lucy Hall's set is breathtaking but wrong headed. A huge spiral of dried earth like a snail shell coiled round itself, at its edges coils of electric blue ribbon sweeping off like the Millenium Bridge. The effect is that Winnie looks as if she is in a rabbit hole in a children's fantasy. Beckett gave very specific instructions on Winnie's physical environment, up to her waist in sand and these have been ignored here. The lighting behind the spiral forms an after image on your retina and everywhere you look there are these coils. Willie crawls partially round the set, inexplicably reaching no-one. Just what is the Vaseline for, that Winnie tells him to remember?

So a famously enigmatic play from the master for those who want to be theatrically stretched but which may leave others mystified.

For a review of another production of this play go here.

Happy Days
Written Samuel Beckett
Directed by Peter Hall

Starring: Felicity Kendall
With: Col Farrell
Designer: Lucy Hall
Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant
Sound: Mike Beer
Running time: One and a half hours with one interval.
Box Office: 020 7836 3334
Booking to 14th February 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th November 2003 Performance at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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