Written and directed by David Lewis (who has written six plays for the Orange Tree previously), How to be Happy covers the well-worn thematic ground of the modern obsession with materialism.
Paul (Paul Kemp) is a former 'Happiness Guru' who is now a divorced, financially hard-up middle-aged man who blames consumerism for much of the world’s ills. Emma, played by Kate Miles, is his ex-wife and is fed-up with dealing with her ex-husband and her new husband who feels “lost”, whilst coping with a new baby as well as a teenage daughter.
Unfortunately, what could be an interesting meditation on the problems of materialism is let down by an unsubtle script. Lewis seems to think that he needs to shout his message that 'capitalism is bad' in various guises throughout the play for it to be understood. It is patronising and smothers any attempt at a storyline.
There are moments of humour though, and Kate Lamb is a revelation as the teenage daughter lacking a sense of purpose. She plays moody, innocent, funny and clever in the right doses and presents a character that is easily warmed to. In contrast, the more established actors Kemp and Miles, and Carolyn Backhouse and Steven Elder as the new partners, lack the subtlety of their younger colleague, relying too heavily on shouting and 'dry tears'.
The play is also let down by a lack of coherent conclusion; there is no effective resolution, making it difficult to ascertain an actual point to the piece – no matter how obvious Lewis tries to make it. It seems to be trying so hard to be political that it fails in its efforts.
There are some particularly witty instances which make up for some of the weaknesses in the script. Lamb makes a good joke about sherbet and Schubert, and Kemp's incessant playing of “Angry Birds” on his iPhone also adds a nice touch.
But the play is far too long for such a loose storyline and the use of a split stage needs to be more explicit to avoid the audience spending the first 15 minutes wondering why people who appear to be in the same room are ignoring each other.
Overall it's a passable play and I would see it for Lamb’s performance alone. But it's a weak plot and lacks delicacy.