I miss the days when birthday parties included goodie bags, paper hats and pass the parcel (those ironic Shoreditch ones don’t count). Fortunately Amy Lamé is throwing just such a shindig at Camden People’s Theatre. Inspired by a Morrissey song from Lamé’s favourite album, Unhappy Birthday explores her complicated relationship with the iconic pop star.
As we walk into the CPT studio we’re given party poppers and red hats, rehydrated potato sticks and, on the night that I went, a piece of birthday cake. It’s fair to say that the excitement levels in the room are pretty high, but there’s also a sense of nervousness, a prickly tension in the air; Lamé is as nice as pie but there’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye that’s unnerving.
I take a seat next to a chair that has been saved for Morrissey, which in retrospect may not have been the best idea in a piece that increasingly feels like it’s going to involve audience participation. “Are you having fun?” Lamé asks, rather wildly; this is a party after all and she wants us all to feel included. A giant red parcel sits promisingly on a table in the middle of the room, the music starts and we’re off.
Unhappy Birthday is actually a fairly simple piece in terms of structure: each layer of the parcel’s wrapping corresponds with a song and a Morrissey-inspired performance art skit involving an audience member. Some get off easier than others (although that depends on how bothered you are about handling sanitary towels) but Lamé constantly asks enough of each of her volunteers to make one fear what will happen when the music stops on you turn. Just how happy would you be about singing Morrissey to a room full of people with some flowers hanging out of your back pocket?
In between these skits, we are told the story of Lamé’s Morrissey obsession, a fixation fuelled by a series of obscure connections through friends and family and a single, fleeting and dismissive meeting. It’s a rather painful tale that mingles the ‘love me’ neediness of a 1960s Beatles fan with a very Morrissey style detachment to the whole thing. Unhappy Birthday acts as an homage but also an act of attack against the star who has, in many ways, shaped Lamé. The hurt she feels towards him is expressed, not only through sarcasm and barbed remarks, but more forcefully in the physical extremities to which she pushes herself. In one part of the show, entitled 30 Reasons To Hate Morrissey, Lamé explodes 30 party poppers one by one directly into her face, each eruption causing a flinch that ripples around the room. Later she nearly drowns herself in hairspray, spraying an entire can on her hair and face in an attempt to imitate the look of the ‘great’ man.
It’s at these points that Unhappy Birthday feels like something much more than just a party that we’re all rather awkwardly enjoying. Beneath the icing, the birthday cake is tainted and it’s the knowledge and understanding of this which will stay with you.