Brendan Cowell's play is given a second airing at Trafalgar Studios 2 after a run at the Old Red Lion Theatre last year
Set in Australia on New Year's Eve, Happy New centres on two brothers, Danny and Lyle, who as children were abandoned in a chicken coop for several months by their mother, scrapping, pecking, and devouring their feathered inmates in order to survive.
Their rescue made the brothers media celebrities for a time. Now, older and forgotten, they struggle with their internal chicken habits and the unresolved psychological trauma buried deep within. The arrival of Pru, a journalist in a relationship with Danny (and perhaps Lyle's replacement mother-figure), causes sparks to fly and emotions to soar as she consistently goads both Danny and Lyle into leaving the safety of their flat/pen, and find their place in the outside world.
The premise of this play is simple - how can individuals ever achieve a sense of normality after suffering such horrific abuse as a child? The ideas within, however, are difficult to follow given the relentless use of metaphorical and figurative language within the script. Wordy, fast-paced and excessively ambiguous, the audience is left baffled by the plethora of ranting monologues, and is apathetic as to who these people are, what they want or need, and why we should care about them.
The actors battle admirably with the long, poetic speeches, with Lisa Dillon emitting both strength and humourous sarcasm in her role as Pru. Joel Samuels as Lyle and William Troughton as Danny become increasingly convincing the more unhinged and chicken-like they become, with the second act revealing the root of their trauma.
It's very brave to write a play that only allows the audience to understand (most of) its contents in hindsight, risking spectator boredom and exhaustion as the viewer works hard to draw links and figure out what on earth is going on. In this case, Cowell might have drawn his characters more sympathetically, and clearly defined their struggle, to bring the audience onside.
The direction (by Robert Shaw) encompasses a series of bold choices and actions, whereas greater subtlety, silence and breathing space would provide a welcome respite. The set (designed by Lily Arnold) is apt, quickly transforming from an Australian flat to a chicken coop, and effectively reconstructs the boys' childhood experience.
In all, Happy New is the product of an innovative idea, yet scripted in a manner that is far too self-indulgent to truly resonate.
- Amy Stow