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Review Round-up: NT Should Be Happy with Notices

Lucinda Coxon’s latest play Happy Now? received its world premiere last Thursday (24 January 2008, previews from 16 January) at the National Theatre, where it’s running in rep in the NT Cottesloe until 15 March 2008, directed by Thea Sharrock (See News, 14 Nov 2007).

In the “darkly comic take on contemporary life and how to survive it”, Olivia Williams stars as Kitty, a married thirtysomething career woman who has a chance encounter at a conference hotel, which leaves her struggling to balance personal freedom with family life, fidelity and a demanding job. The cast also features Anne Reid, Stanley Townsend, Dominic Rowan, Jonathan Cullen, Stuart McQuarrie and Emily Joyce. The premiere production is designed by Jonathan Fensom, with lighting by Oliver Fenwick and sound by Paul Arditti.

Most critics warmly welcomed Coxon’s middle-class domestic comedy, in which they recognised many “horrible truths”, appreciated the “freshly minted dialogue” and smiled at the “consistently funny” writing. They were also impressed by Sharrock’s “entertaining” and “superbly acted” production, with several special mentions for cast members Olivia Williams, Anne Reid, Stanley Townsend and Dominic Rowan. While critics acknowledged that Coxon’s subject matter, the pitfalls of trying to “have it all”, is nothing new, they liked her approach, with one going so far as to proclaim that this play “is the wisest, wittiest and most observant take on the topic so far”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “The staple English middle-class domestic comedy is being quietly re-born in the National’s Cottesloe … 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. 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.”
    • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times – “It is all piffling stuff when lined up against the serious ills of the world. But that, in a sense, is the point. Kitty and her friends have it all: affluence, emancipation, employment, equality and two healthy kids and a Waitrose down the road. So why on earth are they so discontent? … Coxon astutely observes the conflicting priorities of modern women, but she also puts her finger on a modern malaise: the restless quest for a happiness that we somehow feel is our due. But it is Coxon’s sharp observation of modern domestic life that makes her play such a queasily compulsive watch … If the exchanges between husbands and wives don’t get you, then those between Kitty and her infuriating mother (Anne Reid) surely will … Thea Sharrock, directing a fine cast, brings Coxon’s characters to all-too-plausible life. Olivia Williams makes a feisty, funny Kitty and there is droll work too from Stuart McQuarrie as Kitty’s gay friend, whose wistful search for love lends perspective.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “In an age attracted by opposing trends of cynicism and celebrity-worship, what a surprise to find the National presenting a sentimental, romantic comedy that celebrates marriage … The course of true love runs a little rough in the life of Olivia Williams' suitably harassed Kitty, a career woman in her late thirties … Her gay best friend, portly, middle-aged Carl, created to be that demeaning gay stereotype, the queer whom married couples like to befriend, patronise and mildly insult, offers sympathy … All this may sound the stuff of old, familiar cliché, and it is, but Coxon has torn off a strip of authentic, middle-class English life and given it theatrical and reasonably amusing form. The perspective, thanks to her rose-tinted spectacles, remains sunny … Thea Sharrock's laboriously organised production scores its comic points, but is confounded by imposing a radical design upon a traditionally based comedy … The actors, particularly Williams' elegantly put-upon Kitty, are well-tuned to this romantic celebration of new-age woman.
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Lucinda Coxon's new play belongs to a once-familiar genre: the middle-class comedy of recognition. It allows us both to wince and laugh at the painful predicament of its put-upon, harassed heroine. But, although it affords considerable pleasure, it leaves one hungry both for dynamic change in its protagonist's life or a heightened awareness in one's own … At her best, Coxon captures exactly the nagging disquiet of female frustration: the scenes between Kitty and her mum, the wondrous Anne Reid, worried about toothache when her husband is facing an amputation, are especially good. Coxon also conveys the diurnal banalities of bourgeois marriage … But there is something a bit tendentious about Coxon's contrast of marital slog with the relative freedom enjoyed by Kitty's gay, male chum … Admittedly Thea Sharrock's production is full of solid, well-acted virtues. Olivia Williams as Kitty exudes the right sense of incrementally exhausted despair. Her few scenes with Stanley Townsend, excellent as the smooth-tongued hotel lecher, also crackle with frustrated eroticism. And Jonathan Cullen as Kitty's earnest, pedagogic husband, and Dominic Rowan as his parasitic louse of a best friend, are, to a male viewer, uncomfortably plausible.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “Having it all – it's what is expected of educated women nowadays, but it seldom lives up to expectations … This is not a new subject but Lucinda Coxon's wonderfully funny and painfully accurate play is the wisest, wittiest and most observant take on the topic so far. I found myself wincing with recognition and laughing out loud at the same time, in addition to feeling that odd sense of catharsis you get when someone has had the guts to go for broke and tell it exactly as it is … Coxon's comedy hits nail after nail on the head. She's very good on the kind of intimacy women want from their friendships with gay men, such as Stuart McQuarrie's delightful Carl, and on the mutually exasperated relationship between thirtysomething daughters and mothers … The dramatist's most original coup, though, is the character Michael (played with powerful and expansive charm by Stanley Townsend) … Is this guy the answer to a secret prayer or a multiple-bluff operator? The surprising development of that strand is a sign of the emotional maturity and honesty of Coxon's first-rate play for today.”
    • Claire Allfree in Metro (three stars) – “Lucinda Coxon’s smart new comedy about two married couples contains powerful moments of recognition … Despite Coxon’s freshly minted dialogue, however, Thea Sharrock’s production can’t shake off the whiff of conventionality. Just when Coxon delivers a line full of wounding truth (at one point Miles says to his wife Bea that she’s the kind of woman ‘you can’t help being cruel to’), the play slips back into cosy sitcom terrain. Still, Sharrock’s entertaining productions offers much to admire. Olivia Williams’ exhausted Kitty is pulled in so many directions … she looks physically leached of colour.

      - by Terri Paddock

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