In Twentieth Century, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur's 1932 Broadway comedy about theatre folk, a show producer on a train keeps getting plagued by passengers and staff
offering him up the hopeless plays they've written, and which he wisely
rejects. The same thing must happen to director Trevor Nunn wherever he
goes, too. The trouble with We Happy Few - which he's now
directing - is that it was offered to him by a first-time playwright he possibly couldn't
refuse, his actress wife Imogen Stubbs.
While one wants to applaud producers Bill Kenwright and Thelma
Holt for backing a large-scale new play in the West End - and giving it such
lavish resources which, in addition to a 14-strong cast also includes a heavyweight creative team variously populated by choreographer and fight director,
film producer and composer - the play itself is both over-extended and
undernourished. (The payroll must be one of the biggest for a non-musical in
the West End. I also noticed amongst David Hersey's lighting rig two live
follow-spot operators. And, aside from set designer John Napier, there's more
nepotism afoot with costumes by Nunn's daughter Elise and film by son Julian).
Between author and director - usually the most important relationship in
the development and staging of any new play - there's clearly insufficient
objectivity to reign in and give shape to what was a promising idea. Somewhere in here, there's
an affectionate, if indulgent, play about the theatre and a troupe of
all-women travelling players whose contribution to the Second World War
effort was to keep the flame of Shakespeare (and Sophocles and Coward) alive
around the country. (You're even given to believe this was one of the things the war was
actually being fought to preserve.)
Sadly, that piece is marooned in a dense
fog of expository detail and too much characterisation; jump-cuts of time
and place that make it an ineffective memory play; and film reels, dramatic extracts and
variety turns intended to help set the mood and tone but only serving to
unnecessarily lengthen proceedings.
Based on a true-life story of the Orsiris Players (here named the Artemis
Players), We Happy Few is like a primer of backstage life, complete with all those old
superstitious chestnuts about the theatre like actors not wishing each other
luck or saying Macbeth in a theatre (even bizarrely here when that's the
play they're putting on). Much of the first act passes by in bloated
extracts of plays that made me think the entire thing was in danger of
turning into an elaborate version of the Mechanicals' scenes from A
Midsummer Night's Dream.
The second act belatedly introduces some human dramas alongside the
theatrical ones, but, despite the efforts of a strong cast led by Juliet
Stevenson's Hetty, Marcia Warren's Flora and Kate O'Mara's Helen, our
interest seriously wanes as the play moves towards a three-hour mark and lapses towards the overtly sentimental.