Review: Juliet Stevenson in Happy Days at the Young Vic
The inspiration for Samuel Beckett's play Happy Days came from him imagining his worst scenario possible - being very slowly buried alive in blazing hot sun with no shade while a loud noise sounded every time he dropped off to sleep.
"And I thought: who would cope with that and go down singing? Only a woman."
And so Juliet Stevenson takes up the role of Winnie who, in the first half, is buried up to her waist with only her handbag nearby for a distraction. Well that and husband Willie (David Beames) who is more heard than seen, being closeted in a little hollow from which you get the occasional glimpse and hear the occasional grunted response.
Winnie survives by making the most of what she has, her routine and reminiscing. In someways it felt very English almost as if she was ignoring the horror in the same way we'd ignore an unpleasantness or embarrassment. Winnie is stoic dividing her time with various activities like cleaning her teeth but relishing each one as if newly performed and rationing each activity so as to have something to look forward to. She is romantic in her recollections, practical and optimistic never giving in to despair.
Meanwhile Willie flounders around almost animal-like, masturbates and reads the paper. His motivation for his final, strained crawl towards Winnie the topic, no doubt, of literature student essays.
Happy Days does feels like an homage to women and to actresses; there can't be many, if any, other parts that offer such an acting opportunity particularly in the second half when Winnie is buried up to the neck. But it also feels much bigger than that, a statement on the human condition and the mechanisms for coping with and enjoying life.
In fact the curtain call was oddly appropriate to the play. The auditorium lights went up while the stage lights went down and both actors stayed in their final positions until the applause made a slow, awkward demise and the audience started filing out although I'm not sure Stevenson could have moved by herself had she wanted to.
If you hate plays like Waiting For Godot and I Am The Wind best avoid but if not Happy Days is one of those types of plays that is a treat better enjoyed occasionally. I saw the first preview which ran at just over 2 hours with an interval. Catch it at the Young Vic until 8 March.
Two direct connections (thanks to Poly for quickly spotting the second) firstly Mr W and Ms Stevenson were in The Hour together but they also appeared on stage in The Seagull where she played his mum.