Happy Days – Review Royal Exchange Manchester

Some things are destined to be top draw. Take Happy Days, Samuel Beckett’s famous play that is being produced by the Royal Exchange, directed by Sarah Frankcom and starring Maxine Peake. You have all the ingredients for a recipe for success. A powerhouse theatre house, an award winning artistic director, one of the region’s premier thespians and a play by a playwright that is often celebrated.

I have to admit that when I first heard of Happy Days being produced and it would be starring Maxine Peake that I rolled my eyes. This is exactly the kind of middle brow theatre productions that the usual theatre goer would salivate at the prospect of attending. Beckett is one of those playwrights that traditional theatregoers just love to watch. Happy Days may not be one of his more notable works, but it is still one that allows theatre houses and actors to flex their artistic muscles.

Happy Days for those uninitiated is a surreal affair, dominated by one character, Winnie, who is buried to her waist. We do not know why or how. All we are exposed to is her endless monologuing and brief dialogue with her husband, Willie, who is by all intents and purposes hidden on the other side of a mound of earth. With Winnie predominantly the one responsible in carrying this production, it seems ideal for an actor of Peake’s abilities to revel in. It’s one of those roles that get’s actor’s juices flowing, as Peggy Ashcroft once noted:

“Winnie is one of those parts, I believe, that actresses will want to play in the way that actors aim at Hamlet—a ‘summit’ part.”

You can hardly blame me then for my rolling the eyes moment for it screams the kind of theatre that appeals to that atypical audience that would love attending this, find much joy in the production, and crow about it over an espresso in some trendy hipster tea room around Manchester.

However, that is to do this particular production a disservice for it is truly magnificent!

Of course Maxine is a chief reason as to why this production is such a success. Given the enormity of her role to the play itself, she delivers a commanding performance. Peake is becoming one of those doyens of the acting profession that become a byword for excellence. Her roles are often varied, challenging and thought provoking. You rarely witness her accomplish anything but a polished display of acting prowess.

Given the constraints of having to act buried to the waist in the first act and to the neck in the second act and having the majority of the lines, it is a part I no doubt she relished. It’s exactly what you’d expect. It’s a deft subtle and layered performance of a character that hopelessly drifts in the chasm of optimism – or should that be pessimism? For the most it’s a tightly controlled piece of acting, but every now and again she is let off the leash and majestically wallows in her comedic talents. If I had one quibble it would be that Peake’s portrayal of Winnie is exactly the kind of Winnie we have come to expect. There’s an opportunity here to mix it up and play with the stereotypes.

Sarah Frankcom as the director also deserves much praise. Beckett’s surreal masterpiece is not an easy one to produce for the Royal Exchange’s famous round, however, Frankcom rises up to this challenge with aplomb. The mound in which the character of Winnie is trapped revolves tantalisingly for the circle of watchers to marvel at. The use of video screens in the second half is also a lovely accompaniment to what could have been a well-worn traditional piece of theatre.

What sets this production apart is not just the acting or the direction but what it means to us. I have bemoaned how non inclusive theatre is for so many sections of society, that it seems to be the same old people putting on the same old productions for the same old people to watch. Given what Manchester has been through and how despite the bleakness it’s varied communities continue to shine together, this production of Happy Days is one that should resonate with folks from all walks of life.

Frankcom sums this up best by saying:

“There’s a sense that the world is chaotic … I think it’s the place of theatre to create experiences and opportunities for people to explore a different relationship to the more ordinary aspects of being a human being … It’s made us think a lot about what people put up with, and live with, every single day, whether that’s illness, or conflict, or poverty. There are a lot of people who manage to find a happy day through these obstacles, and the play tries to celebrate that.”

This is what makes Happy Days so brilliant. A grand old theatre in Manchester where two proud northerners take a celebrated piece of theatre and make it relevant – it is a noble pursuit that is worth celebrating!

Verdict: A wonderful commanding performance from Maxine Peake as the irascible Winnie. Sarah Frankcom’s production of Beckett’s surreal masterpiece is one that should be treasured and lauded. Top draw theatre! 

What: Happy Days
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre
When: 2nd June 2018

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