29 May 2017 | 20.5 °C

Happy Days Aren't Here Again

By Stuart Black Last edited 27 months ago
Happy Days Aren't Here Again ★★★☆☆ 3

HAPPY DAYS by Beckett,        , writer - Samuel Beckett,   director -  Natalie Abrahami., Design - Vicki Mortime, Lighting Paule Constable, The Young Vic Theatre, London, 2013, Credit: Johan Persson/
Juliet Stevenson as Winnie. Photo by Johan Persson.

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

Aficionados of Samuel Beckett should celebrate the return of Juliet Stevenson to the Young Vic with her acclaimed take on the Irish grouch’s 1961 play, Happy Days.

Easy to admire, Beckett’s aesthetic is a tough one to enjoy: nihilistic, scornful, plotless and repetitive — his shows rarely make for an easy night out. That said, it's done here about as well as it can be with a bravura, Lear-like performance from Stevenson as a woman who will not give up her optimism no matter how life grinds her down.

And my, how she suffers: buried up to her waist in the first half then up to her neck in the second. Stevenson plays Winnie, a woman stuck in a hole in the ground with the sun beating down on her and ants in her pants. There’s no explanation of how she got there, though there is an obnoxious klaxon that honks every time she drops off to sleep. Predating Gitmo, the situation is philosophical rather than political: a thickly-sliced metaphor for life. It's one that will appeal to existentialists and manic depressives, though it has to be said it lacks the elegance of the Sisyphus myth of which it is a variation.

There are plenty of questions raised: why doesn’t Winnie see her plight? Why doesn’t her husband help her? Why not try to escape? The answer to all of these posers is: that’s life, innit. And though the co-mingling of such glib wisdom with the herculean effort expended by Stevenson in rendering Winnie’s predicament is on one level fascinating, on another it’s utterly tedious. Which is of course, exactly how Beckett wanted it.

There are a few bawdy jokes to keep the audience going and a couple of nice flourishes from director Natalie Abrahami. Vicki Mortimer's design is also diverting: a spectacular rocky outcrop poured into the Young Vic’s auditorium to create a kind of concrete wedding dress in which Winnie is bound.

It's Beckett deluxe then with a central performance that deserves great praise, but in an era of shredded attention spans, it's also a long two hours.

Happy Days runs at the Young Vic until 21 March. Tickets cost £10-£35. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 20 February 2015