Reviews West End & Central Published 8 June 2013

Happy New

Trafalgar Studios ⋄ 4th - 29th June 2013

Childhood trauma on camera.

Lauren Mooney

Another Old Red Lion transfer to Trafalgar Studios 2, ¬†Australian playwright Brendan Cowell’s Happy New makes the transition with only one of its three original cast members returning. Even so it’s the performances that stand out in what is a claustrophobic and often bizarre piece of theatre.

It’s New Year’s Eve and co-dependent brothers Danny (William Troughton) and Lyle (Joel Samuels) are de-toxifying as they prepare to embark on a fresh, clean and happy new life in the morning. Cared for by the state since being abandoned in childhood, tomorrow they are due to be abandoned again, as the state relinquishes its pledge to support them. This year, they say, they are going to enter the world for real; they fantasise about corporate success in the same way that a seven-year-old might, playing at having a grown up job. But when Danny’s girlfriend Pru (Lisa Dillon) storms home from a party in a rage, they begin to grasp that their past mistakes are not so easy to discard as the grip of the childhood trauma that haunts them grows ever stronger.

Director Robert Shaw handles the slow reveal of information to the audience with skill, allowing the horror at the heart of things – it turns out the two boys were abandoned by their mother in a chicken coop for months on end before being taken into care and, as a result, have become celebrities of a sort – to unfold gradually. Cowell’s writing is stylised and poetic, with certain passages taking on the rhythms of performance poetry; the effect of this can be breathtaking, though at other times it sits oddly with the world the play depicts. At first this linguistic drive feels like a symptom of Danny and Lyle’s otherness, their inability to fit in, but by having Danny’s functional, successful, TV presenter girlfriend speak in this same way too the play muddies the connection between the brothers’ experiences and their distinctive manner of speech.

At times it has a kind of magical realist quality – a kind of wishful thinking – and as the play progresses you realise it is less about Danny’s adultery, the out-of-control co-dependency of the brothers’ relationship or even the horrible things that happened to them in childhood, as it is about the bleakness of the modern phenomenon of reality TV. What would it be like if all such subjects of the public gaze, of the obsession with human misery and pain that drives the industry, were able to speak as eloquently and articulately as Danny and Lyle? Would they still be so embroiled in a system that both loves and despises them, that is obsessed with their suffering? The answer is a resounding yes: Danny and Lyle are public property, and their linguistic brilliance offers them no help.

The form that the brothers’ psychological scarring takes is a bizarre one – after months spent locked up with chickens at a formative age, they squawk and cluck in times of high stress – and it’s real credit to Troughton and Samuels that this feels upsetting and unsettling rather than laughable. Dillon, meanwhile, is fascinating as Pru, inscrutable and highly watchable, her timing impeccable.

Though Cowell’s play is crammed with ideas, Happy New doesn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole, and though Cowell’s writing is engagingly idiosyncratic, some of the dramatic devices he employs, like the use of a newsreader to convey plot information, feel a little hackneyed. There is also something a little strange about the whole production – perhaps due to the mutual wariness and mistrust of the characters? – that keeps you from fully emotionally connecting.

Cowell’s preoccupation with the Australian dream and with the cultural state of his country are both intriguing and sad. But by focusing solely on Danny and Lyle, as the media’s subjects, with Pru as its facilitator, the play limits itself; the public are present only by implication, imaginary faces staring in at the windows. And yet it is they who are responsible for what happens to these men because they are so willing to consume their misery, and their implied verdict on proceedings is clear: suffer, little children.

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Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.

Happy New Show Info


Directed by Robert Shaw

Written by Brendan Cowell

Cast includes Lisa Dillon, Joel Samuels, William Troughton

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