HAPPY DAYS Review: Sarah Frankcom delivers a bold and innovative re-imagining of Samuel Beckett’s classic play

Maxine Peake as Winnie in HAPPY DAYS.

Maxine Peake as Winnie in HAPPY DAYS at Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Strange, surreal but surprisingly life-affirming, HAPPY DAYS is a challenging two-hander about love, life and relationships

Following the success of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, THE SKRIKER and HAMLET, Maxine Peake reunites with Royal Exchange Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom to take on Samuel Beckett’s surreal masterpiece HAPPY DAYS.

Written by Beckett in 1961, HAPPY DAYS tells the story of Winnie and Willie, a 50-something couple trapped in their routines and humdrum existence. Buried waist-deep in a mound of earth and armed with a toothbrush, her medicine and a lipstick amongst other things, Winnie structures her days around the comfort of routine, surviving the day with fragments of prattling optimism. Her husband, Willie, lives in the shadows of his underground cave keeping himself out of Winnie’s gaze, as the pair both await the inevitable bell to ring in another “happy day”.

Those familiar with Beckett’s play will know that HAPPY DAYS is one of his more challenging plays to stage. Throughout the whole of the play, Winnie remains buried, trapped up to her waist in the first act and up to the neck in the second act. This is not only physically restricting for the actor, but also visually restricting for the audience – particularly when sat in-the-round – but somehow, director Sarah Frankcom and her creative team have managed to pull it off.

Maxine Peake as Winnie in HAPPY DAYS

Maxine Peake as Winnie in HAPPY DAYS at Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Here, set designer Naomi Dawson uses some good old-fashioned theatrical jiggery-pokery to ensure the audience get to see the action from all angles as the two-metre high mound of scorched grass, soil and waste, slowly revolves. Aided by Jack Knowles’ blistering lighting design, which follows Winnie at every point and Claire Windsor’s ear-piercing sound design, which shocks us back into reality, Frankcom delivers a bold and innovative re-imagining of Beckett’s classic play.

As expected, Maxine Peake delivers a stunning performance as Winnie, the eternal optimist stuck in a loveless marriage, trying to make the best of it by maintaining a strict but meaningless routine and oodles of positive thinking. Using her hands, her facial expressions and the tone of her voice, Peake effortlessly brings out the humour in the piece, instantly winning over the audience, without overdoing the part so much that it becomes a caricature. David Crellin is equally strong as the silent Willie, spending most of his time sleeping or reading his newspaper.

David Crellin as Willie in HAPPY DAYS

David Crellin as Willie in HAPPY DAYS at Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Yet, while the first act flies by, the pace slows significantly in the second act and the piece loses some of its impact as a result. Some changes to the staging in the second half also don’t pull off as well as expected. Now buried up to her neck, a small camera is placed in front of Peake to show a live video stream of her face on TV screens placed above the mound. Yet, while this allows the audience to see Winnie’s face at all times, the human connection we felt with the character in the first half is suddenly lost as watch her from afar and the TV screens ultimately distract rather than aid the action.

That said, there is plenty to like here and on the whole, HAPPY DAYS remains one of Beckett’s finest pieces, blending surrealism, comedy and despair together on stage.

3.5 out of 5 stars

HAPPY DAYS runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 23 June 2018.