It's a story well-suited to the tiny Trafalgar Studio 2 where the audience is close enough to see the actors’ every drop of spit and sweat. The twisted family drama soon turns into a purgatorial nightmare reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit – with the brothers Danny and Lyle caught in a psychological loop that is only made more fraught by the presence of Pru, a whirling and unpredictable femme fatale. As hard as the boys try to move forward with their symbolic acts of renewal – cleansing face-masks, a noxious-looking new year’s punch – they are continuously brought back to the past and their strange relationship to each other. It becomes clear that the flat they now share is just as much a cage as the chicken coop was and that action is no guarantee of change.
Happy New feels a bit like an episode of Neighbours directed by David Lynch – a draining but often powerful experience. Not everything comes off despite energetic performances by the three leads and the clear, purposeful direction of Robert Shaw. The play’s problems lie with Cowell’s stylistic tics: wilful weirdness and overwritten dialogue. Perhaps if these two tendencies were pushed a bit further the tale might come out the other side as something genuinely hard to forget.
At times, however, Happy New is just a bit ordinary. Certainly, by the end, as pat answers to questions the play raises start piling up, there is a feeling that more ambiguity might have avoided a sense of anti-climax. Instead of a deeper uncanny resonance, you might just leave misquoting JPS: "Hell is Australian people."
Happy New runs at the Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY until 29 June. Tickets range from £15-£30. Visit atgtickets.com/shows/happy-new/trafalgar-studios to find out more. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary press ticket.
By Stuart Black