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Happy Days

By • West End
WOS Rating:
Happy Days is a bold move by Felicity Kendal.

Not only has she fled this cosy world, but she's plumped for a truly demanding role - and one that's a huge departure from the flighty, middle-class woman that Kendal has made her speciality to date. As Winnie in Samuel Beckett's 80-minute near-monologue (her husband Willie has a few lines), she, famously, must spend the first part of the play buried up to her waist in earth and the second buried up to her neck, acting entirely by facial contortions.

What makes Kendal's move doubly bold is that she's stepping into the earthy hole that several great actresses have vacated. While, most notably, there was Beckett's muse Billie Whitelaw in a version that was later filmed, many others have taken on the daunting challenge of the eternal optimist attempting to face down life's daily vicissitudes.

In Peter Hall's new production, Kendal certainly rises to the challenge. From the start, she throws everything into the role. Her body jerks and twitches like a trapped sparrow as she fusses and fiddles with her handbag. Finding her Irish accent sounds a bit more of a struggle - she starts brightly, but it's not long before we're into that familiar husky Home Counties voice again.

In truth though, Kendal's is a pretty good crack at the part. She makes an effective Winnie and, in a way, her inherent middle-class niceness makes her situation all the more poignant. Unfortunately, I found Hall's direction far too heavy-handed, strangely so. This after all, is the director who staged the very first British Godot (at the same theatre, no less) and one whom, you'd think, would be strongly sympathetic to Beckett.

In his own diaries, Hall remarks on the humour of Happy Days. Pity that this production seems determined to strip out the lightness and the jokes that suffuse all of Beckett's plays. We laugh (or should laugh) at Winnie as she gibbers and chatters and fiddles with objects in an attempt to fill up the day. She sputters out 'unforgettable' quotes -promptly forgets them and is seemingly indifferent to the plight of her immobility. This can be very funny.

But Hall's production is taken at a furious pace, losing the musical cadences of Beckett's prose. Words spout from Winnie's mouth but are given little time to impinge on our consciousness before she's off again.

Still, Hall does succeed in revealing the deep-lying sadness of the text. The final moments of the play - with Winnie blissfully singing the Merry Widow waltz while Willie (Col Farrell) attempts the Sisyphean task of clambering up the set - leave an indelible impression. And our last glimpse - of Winnie's head, lying on the scorched earth of Lucy Hall's uniquely arresting tilted spiral of a set, in the fixed rictus of a ventriloquist's dummy - is one of the most arresting images of the year.

Full marks for the Peter Hall Company for bringing this undoubted masterpiece to the West End. In a world dominated by second-rate musicals, this a salutary reminder that there's still room for plays that say something profound about the human spirit.

- Maxwell Cooter


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