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March 25, 2008

Happy Now is a play that doesn't quite work - but it is a very interesting failure, says David Wootton: Lucinda Coxon's Happy Now at the National

Posted by David Wootton

Lucinda Coxon's Happy Now
directed by Thea Sharrock
National Theatre, London
Cottesloe Theatre
in repertoire 16th January - 10th May 2008

This is a fine play. Anne Reid is in it and is absolutely wonderful. Stuart McQuarrie is first rate. Thea Sharrock directs, and she's always good. Things weren't going perfectly on the night I saw it, with several muffed lines, but nothing is perfect every night.

It's a very funny play. It's a close observation of middle class life: two couples with young children; their gay friend; a would-be seducer; a mother - seven parts (the children are always present, but always off stage), seven characters whom we get to know very well and come to understand. It's a very sad play - it's a play about failing marriage, a dying father, alcoholism, and feeling trapped. Funny and sad at the same time makes for a real experience.

Alison and I had a low-key argument afterwards. I said "That's the sort of thing that ought to be on television." She said "There are things like that on television all the time." I'm sure she's wrong - if she was right I would watch more television. Indeed I see Lucinda Coxon has never written for television, while if this was the mid-seventies she would surely have found employment writing episodes of The Good Life.

The play has certain qualities that remind one of a sitcom. Lots of things happen, but nothing much changes: we could easily be watching an episode in a continuing series. But what we are really watching is someone, Kitty, who is stuck. Her husband has had a career change. Her heterosexual friends get divorced. Her gay friend gets and loses a lover. Meanwhile she stands still.

She almost has an affair, but she doesn't. She buries her boss and presumably gets promoted. And she fears that she is reliving her father's life - he left her mother as soon as his daughter went to college, presumably because he had been unhappily married for years and years. (Her mother still nourishes the crazed belief that he wants to come back, and won't answer the phone because she believes he is constantly telephoning her.) Is she unhappily married? Is she "an explosion waiting to happen"?

The ending is delicately ambiguous: we can't tell if she is hopelessly stuck, or at last reconciled to her life. The critics seem to think that there is something wrong about this. In the modern world (post-Ibsen, to whom one of them refers) women are supposed to throw off their shackles. She should leave home or throw out her husband. But Kitty isn't oppressed by patriarchy. It's not clear that her husband oppresses her at all. She's got a good career, and is better paid than her husband, who has abandoned the law in order to teach. She's got a job she believes in - she works for a cancer charity. It's true that she's overworked and understimulated. She's doing better at life than her parents did, but not well enough. She's not happy now, and if not now, when? What would it take to make Kitty happy?

What's wonderful about this play is that it lets us see just what a difficult question this is. A mother who wasn't self-obsessed would help. A father who could talk to his daughter would help. A husband who wasn't preoccupied by the misuse of the apostrophe would help. (Here I have to declare an interest. I once wrote to ITN to protest about the misuse of an apostrophe in a caption. They wrote politely back thanking me for expressing my views on terrorism.)

But the only one of these she can possibly change is the last, and, at least in the confined world of the play, there is no one better around. The sad and simple truth is that Kitty is unhappy because that's all she knows how to be, now that she's old enough to face a mid-life crisis, to realise that getting married, or getting promoted isn't going to do the trick.

The weakness of the play, I think, is that the one character who seems to understand happiness is the sleazy and dislikeable seducer, Michael. He has to do too many things at once. He has to understand sex, and human nature, and how to be happy; he has to be only interested in sex, but at the same time he has to understand and respect Kitty; he has to be a sex addict and a philosopher.

I can't see that this works. We don't know if we are supposed to have contempt for him or to admire him. He's the only outsider in Kitty's claustrophobic world, and we don't know if he represents an escape, or a trap into which she is in danger of falling. This is not to say that there aren't people who are as complicated and contradictory as Michael is supposed to be. It's to say that his role in the drama is unclear. What's he there for? To prove that Kitty has no real chance of escape? To show that happiness is a frame of mind? To philosophize? Or to disgust?

In the end, I don't think the play quite works. But it is a very interesting failure. It is an obvious and simple thing to say but Lucinda Coxon seems to be asking questions to which she doesn't have the answers. Is Kitty's situation comic or tragic? Is she unadventurous, or faithful? She doesn't know, the playwright doesn't know, and we don't know. That's life.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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