The staple English middle-class domestic comedy is being quietly re-born in the National’s Cottesloe while War Horse (to which there is far less than meets the eye, I now reckon) and Much Ado About Nothing grab the headlines on the big stage. After last year’s underrated The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, Lucinda Coxon’s Happy Now? proves there really is life after Ayckbourn.
Everything about the play rings with a horrible truth, and the writing is consistently funny and flecked with pain. Thea Sharrock’s smart production is a feast of good acting, too, with a superb cast led by the willowy Olivia Williams as Kitty, a charity worker fraught with family worries. Her teacher husband Johnny (Jonathan Cullen) doesn’t kiss her any more. Her self-centred mother June (blithe, batty and beatific Anne Reid) is no consolation.
Her unseen sister is dying and her unseen father is about to have his foot removed. The couple’s friends, Miles and Bea (Dominic Rowan and Emily Joyce) are taking their daughter out of Johnny’s school into “selective” education. Big row. By the second act, Miles has moved in with Kitty and Johnny and his fake tan is smearing up the bathroom basin. Bea is to become a life coach. She starts training on Monday and finishes Friday.
Jonathan Fensom’s design is a large brown three-sided box of fitted kitchen cupboards which serves equally well for the brilliant opening scene in a hotel – and its later pay-off – between Kitty and a predatory but charming fellow charity worker at a conference. Michael (Stanley Townsend) is one of those irrepressible seducers who find that being upfront and obnoxious reaps, in the long term, more rewards than rebuffs.
The comedy of Kitty’s fascination with this sexual pariah is a witty counterpoint to her growing frustration at home. Williams plots the gradations of her slippery progress through the turmoil with an acute awareness of her own weaknesses, and this gives the play richness beyond its anatomy of male frailty. The despicable Miles – and Dominic Rowan’s performance is faultlessly revolting as well as very funny – sees the funeral of Kitty’s sister as a “good place to pick up women”.
Another perspective on the battlefield is provided by Stuart McQuarrie’s gay best friend Carl, a lawyer with his own sadness that seeps into the kitchen cabinet of the “where do we go from here” discussions. Lucinda Coxon has had two plays performed at the Bush – oh, that must be another good reason to cut the grant – and is well known in South Carolina. With this NT premiere, her career is coming into sharp and promising focus.