The woman’s husband intermittently climbs out of a hole nearby. He mostly keeps his back to the audience and hardly speaks at all. Loud static jolts us like a cattle-prod, and every so often a high-pitched noise prompts the woman to repeat, “And now…”
No, this is definitely not the Cheryl Baker musical of Happy Days. It’s a surreal, uncomfortable and darkly funny Samuel Beckett play about a woman’s lot in life.
Winnie, played so superbly by Juliet Stevenson (Atlantis, The Village) that even this acid trip of a scenario feels terrifyingly real, rambles about nothing in particular for 100 minutes. And yet, through her repetition and fragments of phrases (“the old style!”) a picture forms in our minds about the character’s real plight; her hopeless marriage, from which she manages, despite the lack of interest from her husband and the anger that sporadically bursts out of her, to glean hope.
Even the fact that she’s buried up to her waist is something Winnie has come to accept as “one of those things” in life. Happy Days is therefore an ironic and sad title, with every laugh Stevenson mines from an obscure script leaving a bitter aftertaste.
Director Natalie Abrahami and designer Vicki Mortimer have made a great choice in placing the action on a deserted beach. The unrelenting brightness of Paule Constable’s lighting makes Winnie’s situation even more pitiful, while the harsh soundtrack by Tom Gibbons makes sure even the audience is never at rest. David Beames is no less Spartan as Winnie’s husband, Willie, greeting her chatter with either curt phrases or loud snorts. When he feels like it.
In short, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, and maybe not one to take your Cheryl Baker-loving mum to. While Beckett has admirably reduced the world of an unhappy but hopeful woman’s existence to this bizarre set-up, it is essentially a very long, almost stream-of-consciousness monologue.
While not traditional entertainment by any means, it is nevertheless a fierce and memorable night at the theatre.
Performed at the Young Vic in London on Wednesday 19 February 2014.