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Happy Days (Young Vic Theatre)

Natalie Abrahami's production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days opened at the Young Vic last night (30 January 2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Juliet Stevenson as Winnie
© Johan Persson

Happy Days are here again, and Juliet Stevenson as Winnie in a floral dress and tatty holiday hat has been trapped by a land spill on a very English beach, with useless husband Willie (David Beames) stuck in a cave under a dramatically serrated block of white cliff.

Usually, Beckett's odd couple are stranded in a post-apocalyptic, or post-Volcanic, landscape. Here, the shingle is sporadically still sliding down a chute in the cliffs, like small change in a fairground slot machine. Life really does go on, with that little fornicating emmet sneaking under Winnie's dress and Willie quite obviously exercising his member when she passes back the dirty picture.

Also, Winnie's account of the rude, vulgar couple who last passed by makes them sound not the last on earth. Instead of "another lovely day" being an ironic comment on the inevitability of death, Stevenson's Winnie really does believe what she says, despite all evidence to the contrary. And Willie has seriously misinterpreted the blazing sun as an invitation to stretch out in the nude.

Stevenson is a great actress with a wonderful vocal range, which she here channels through a staccato, almost anti-lyrical, suburban chattering. It's a deliberately perverse reading, nothing smooth or genteel about it, but she wins through triumphantly in the second act, virtually unrecognisable, head bobbing desperately, still talking, in the deadly sandcastle. Beames's Willie, now dressed in tails and topper, scrambles slowly towards her like a beached seal for their last "Merry Widow" waltz, the last bumper with their bodies nearly touching.

These are poignantly iconic images in our modern theatre, unendurably upsetting, and we're halfway to the disembodied jabber of the mouth in Not I. There's none of that lovely Irish lilt and hankering after "the old style" that Rosaleen Linehan brought to the old bitch on the beach, nor any hint of the fading glamour of Madeleine Renaud (the original Winnie) or Peggy Aschcroft, with her alabaster upper arms.

In fact, when Stevenson says, "What arms? What breasts?" we no more remember them than she does; her hands, yes, which flutter tragically like birds, or falling cinders, and then she's left merely with a tongue and a pair of lips which she furiously flaunts.

She's ordinary to the point of self-parody, the stripped-down spiritual cousin of Patricia Routledge's Hyacinth Bucket: "No-one in this family has ever committed suicide, and I'm sure we're not going to start on the day I'm having the new vicar for tea and light refreshments," said Hyacinth, cheering nobody up save herself.

Director Natalie Abrahami has supervised this striking reinterpretation with great skill, considerably abetted by the design of Vicki Mortimer and the lighting of Paule Constable. The awkward necessity of a canvas gazebo to conceal Winnie at the start of the second act underlines the presentational style of the play, which is here covered by a palpably artificial canopy of bright white light.