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Theatre Review: How To Be Happy – A Sofa, A Divorce and A Lamb.

  Monday 10th October 2011

The Orange Tree Theatre is, for the sixth time, premiering the latest creation of resident playwright David Lewis.

Lewis writes with a great knowledge of the theatre space. The play’s small cast lends itself to the intimate theatre-in-the-round stage of Richmond’s Orange Tree. The play’s five-strong dramatis personii is comprised firstly of Graham, a former ‘Happiness Guru’ who lives in faux middle-class comfort with his partner, Kate. Graham’s ex-wife Emma has married Paul, an extremely well-to-do advertising magnate. Graham and Emma’s daughter Daisy flits between the two abodes whilst living, with a uniquely teenage brand of weltschmerz, with her mother, Paul and their young baby.

The sofa is key to understanding the play.

The action in the play is divided between the houses of both couples. The difference in location is marked to the audience only by the acting, not by elaborate prop shifts.

The audience is often presented with two scenes that unfold simultaneously, one in each house. The play opens with Graham sitting in his house playing Angry Birds on his iPhone, whilst Emma collapses on her sofa after a hard night’s mothering.

This, if not properly dealt with, could jar, and leave the audience alienated and tutting at the play’s self-satisfied bravado. The sofa is extremely convenient. It is a large item that resembles two sofas that have been stitched together at a ninety degree angle. Therefore, it lends itself to theatre in the round: characters can be seen from many angles, and at least a quartet of people can be seated at once.

However, early in the action Daisy shot the elephant that was most definitely in the room. Actress Kate Lamb was given the cleverest line of the night: “We’ve got the exact same sofa in our house!” Full marks to David Lewis for that sumptuous metatheatrical nod.

After this moment which excuses the handiness of sofa, the play has ups and downs.

The sofa trick allows for some well executed cross-cutting. The cross-cuts inject even more humour into the already funny script, and, as the play gains momentum, cross-cutting introduces lightness into potentially heavy scenes.

When Graham, in his own house, tells Emma some weighty news, his passionate revelation is deflated by Daisy, who in a separate home yet on the same stage is conducting a phone conversation about Schubert, sherbet and liquorice.

The dialogue does not always possess such sparkle. The intelligence of the funny moments is contrasted with frequent sections in which the characters discuss ‘issues.’

The characters grapple not only with the finer psychological tenets of happiness – which isn’t played too badly – but they often indulge in exchanges about consumer-capitalism, environmentalism and activism. Although these issues are, of course, deserving of theatrical exposure, they are mishandled.

The ‘issues’ are presented to the audience via thudding, didactic and clumsy dialogue with which the actors do their very best. Issues do not covertly arise via metaphor or connotation, but arrive abruptly with the vulgarity of an unbidden interloper. The obviousness and laboured construction of these exchanges cast a shadow on the good work done by the playwright, however they do not undo it.

If only Lewis had forgotten these issues and had written a play about people! He has a knack, as a playwright and a director, for teasing out the nuances of human interaction.

All the members of the cast react to each other with an intelligent and considered realism. Carloyn Backhouse, Steven Elder and Paul Kemp perform with a brilliant naturalness, and Kate Miles provides glimpses of gorgeous and bristling sexuality. However it is Kate Lamb, as Daisy, who steals the show. She is one of the best younger performers that I have seen on the London stage. She did not have that all-too-common stage-school hangover, nor did it ever appear obvious that she was ‘acting’ – an excellent portrayal.

The Orange Tree hosts How To Be Happy until 5th November.

Ben Goldsmith

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