Brendan Cowell is regarded as a bit of a star among stage writers, bringing a dark, surreal and emotionally insightful angle to themes of family relationships and what it means to be human. His characters speak in poetic, lyrical prose, interspersed with bouts of swearing, highlighting the dichotomy of human life between the base and the elevated.
This approach is reflected in Happy New, which sees Australian brothers Danny and Lyle trying to escape the "coop" that is the flat provided for them by journalist, Pru.
The two boys were abandoned by their mother when they were children, locked in the chicken coop for months with nothing but the chickens to sustain them. They come to empathise with their food, adopting chicken-like mannerisms and accepting that there is a "pecking order" that must be obeyed. But who is top chicken? Can these damaged individuals fly the coup and survive in the outside corporate world?
The description of Happy New as "dark comedy" is only half accurate - it's definitely dark but certainly not a comedy. There are a couple of amusing lines, but any real humour is absent, with the focus on the emotionally disturbed nature of the boys' sibling rivalry, the power-struggle between them, and their relationship with Pru. Not that this isn't interesting, but it's all so over-written and over-long that after a while feels like being battered with a dead chicken. Points are hammered home, again and again, often at extreme volume, detracting from what Cowell usefully has to say about surviving in the modern world.
It's a shame, because the performances deserve four stars. All three actors are absolutely terrific, working their flip-flops off to present characters that are believable, if not exactly sympathetic. Alfred Enoch as Danny is superb, his wonderfully expressive face and natural manner perfectly portraying an underlying disturbance. Joel Samuels' Lyle is all movement, talking with a voluble combination of arms, hands and face, full of resentment and repressed violence. Josie Taylor's Pru is the quintessential career woman, prepared to do anything to fulfill her overweening ambition. They are all extremely physical, using the small space, with its beautifully minimalist set (designed by Claire Lyth), perfectly.
If director Robert Shaw had cut down some of the more overblown scenes and given the ending more clarity (Pru's "big award-winning moment" is something of an anti-climax against the noise going on elsewhere on stage), this could have been a darkly surreal triumph.