Review: Happy Days at The Royal Exchange

Go See This contributor Carlie Hedmann reviews Happy Days at The Royal Exchange Theatre. The production runs until 23 June.

“The days go by, certain days, go quite by, and little or nothing said, little or nothing done. That is the danger. To be guarded against.”

The role of Winnie has often been seen as the equivalent of ‘Hamlet’ for actresses. Across the hour and twenty minutes, they are buried up to their waist, and then their neck in a pile of dirt, unable to move, barely able to turn their head. It is a role that requires courage – to attempt to hold an audience’s attention, to be able to captivate them with just your head visible is no mean feat. Yet, as Maxine Peake has proven time and time again, (such as with her interpretation of the titular role Hamlet at the Royal Exchange a few years ago) she thrives under such pressure, and Happy Days shows her at her strongest.

Happy Days follows Winnie and her husband Willie as they go about their daily lives. Winnie, buried and armed with her lipstick, handbag – and gun- looks for the fleeting moments of happiness throughout, determined that every day will be a happy day. Willie, sleeping in a hole underneath the mound in which his wife resides, occasionally emerges, every brief appearance brightening his wives’ day. Samuel Beckett is known for his absurdist dramas, writing plays that challenge actors, directors and audiences alike, and whilst Happy Days sounds daunting, at its heart it is a story about man and wife – about finding those Happy Days after a lifetime together.

Designer Naomi Dawson wrestles with the Exchange’s in the round stage as successfully as setting can allow. The set revolves constantly, meaning that the two actors can be seen – eventually- by every seat in the house. To accommodate the second act, televisions are then used, with a close-up on Peake’s face that create a much creepier, bleak second act. Yet, even with the lighting and sound design creating an atmosphere that is arguably futile, the two stars bounce off each other, leading to a play that is just as funny as it is foreboding.

Following their success with A Streetcar Named Desire, Skriker and Hamlet, Peake and Frankcom have once again collaborated to create Happy Days. From the moment she is ‘woken up’, Peake charms the audience. What she lacks in movement, she more than makes up for in her energy, and the audience was constantly laughing with just a raise of her brow. She brings out all sides to Winnie, as elegant and delicate as she is resilient.

However, there is no Winnie without her Willie, and David Crellin does a stellar job. Asleep for a large majority of the piece, it is in the exchanges between husband and wife that the production excels. These exchanges are mundane in nature – Winnie having to bang over and over on the side of the mound to revive her sleeping husband - yet they so effortlessly capture the simple beauty in these everyday moments, that it became impossible not to smile.

Happy Days is as much about the couple as it is about what is inevitable – what we have no power to control in our every day lives, and must simply accept and face. Yet, when I left the theatre, I couldn’t help but smile. With Happy Days, the creative team and its two stars have captured a snapshot of life, creating a play that would be a shame to simply let pass you by.

Happy Days is at The Royal Exchange Theatre from 25 May to 23 June. There are also accessible performances, including BSL and captioned.

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