Described as ‘a lyrical and provocative urban fairytale’ this second instalment in Kenneth Emson’s town/country trilogy, a product of the Old Vic New Voices programme, gets under the skin of the young and dispossessed.
Hayley (Abigail Hood) is a 15-year-old girl, abused by her 'scumbag' father, who escapes when she can into a desolate local playground to meet the 17-year-old Simon (Richard James-Neale). Into this grim landscape comes a mysterious, leather-coated stranger called Pirsg, who is only visible to those who need to find him, and who silently vaults the playground climbing frame like a seasoned gymnast. He whispers ‘happiness’ into the ears of those who seek him - one of whom is Simon. Clearly there is much symbolism at play here, especially when he dispenses miniature effigies and a wingless bird to a passing tramp. But what are we to make of this? Does he represent death and despair or is he simply a surreal pusher? The subject matter is in danger of being swamped by some desperately overblown imagery.
Then in Act Two we finally witness a confrontation we can fully grasp: two police officers are at odds with each other over the interrogation of Simon who has been discovered by the body of the murdered Hayley. Immediately the play springs vividly to life. Jim Sturgeon - already seen as the violin-owning Scottish tramp who hangs himself in a church – is outstanding as the local copper who escaped to better himself but is cursed for ever as one of the lost souls of his tower block past; he is matched all the way by Henry Maynard as the more senior, more reasonable, country-dwelling policeman who came to the town ‘to help people’ but walks away when things get out of hand.
Pirsg is revealed as a modern-day Pied Piper, leading victims to the only happiness they can find away from the futility of their lives; but does he, like the original Pied Piper, have a vengeful motive or is he simply the heart of urban darkness?
Despite some very strong performances and hauntingly effective sound design by Chris James this is an uneven piece. Too many questions remain unanswered – who, for instance, was the girl sliced up on a table with an electric carving knife? – but for all its obscurities, Whispering Happiness has some enthralling moments that will hit theatrical nerve-endings.