For a play set in the niche world of indie game development, Happiness Ltd feels comfortingly familiar. Game designer Vi (Gabrielle Sheppard) goes through a break-up which rocks her sense of self, so she invents a game to cope, celebrating small achievements like eating a proper meal or getting up on time. Her best friend and coder Tyler (Liam Salmon) turns Vi’s idea into an augmented reality app, which is quickly backed by a large company. Success puts a strain on their friendship. The corporate backers push for an unethical marketing strategy. And Vi, who should be on the rise, finds she’s still falling apart. It’s a small-scale, contemporary rags-to-riches story with big ideas.
The plot has familiar beats, but there are interesting theatrical flourishes in the direction. Scenes set in the midst of online battles are vibrant and skilfully choreographed, as Vi and Tyler carry on real-world conversations while leaping and rolling around the stage firing plastic guns at unseen enemies. Moments where the performers physically reference video game movements are funny and nicely played, although because many of these physical moments belong to Vi and Tyler at the start of the piece, it does feel jarring to see the more ‘adult’ characters join in later on.
The minimalist set design is well thought-out and flexible, even if a Death Star-esque light is a bit of a scene stealer. The sound design creates fantastic ambiance and is incredibly well executed, especially in the gaming scenes. The actors’ movement around the space is slick and plotted well, but the frequent entrances and exits and the need for actors to be offstage makes the play feel like it’s not a natural fit for a space which doesn’t have wings or stage exits. The work-around is canvas flats to create an offstage area, but this seems like a temporary compromise where a more robust design solution might be necessary.
The underlying issue of indie developers compromising their creative autonomy if they receive corporate backing is explored, without jumping to an easy outcome. It’s particularly refreshing that Rebecca Jade Hammond’s Jean, the play’s representative for big business, is written with nuance rather than being painted as the corporate baddie. Jean stands out as quick, witty, and understatedly clever, and Hammond controls her scenes with a calm confidence and a perfectly pitched deadpan.
There’s an incredible amount of energy in the performance – even the quieter scenes seem to fizz nervously – but there’s also a tendency to push so hard that the dialogue comes out on-the-nose. This isn’t helped by a patronising glossary of gaming terms included in the programme that, in performance, are contextualised anyway, a decision which lacks confidence in the audience and the script.
And while some of dialogue feels pushed, some of the themes are dealt with far too subtly. It’s frustrating that Happiness Ltd feels like a play about depression that still skirts around explicitly talking about depression. Even after a monologue from Tyler where he confesses to having felt suicidal in the past, the play doesn’t really use the moment to talk openly about mental health, and the catalysing event of Vi’s break-up isn’t discussed beyond the opening scenes. It’s disturbing that Vi’s anger towards Tyler in the final moments is directed at his effective use of a coping mechanism because coping makes him less ambitious and less creative. While it’s totally admirable to hope people will aim for something more than ‘just’ coping, it’s boring to see another version of the myth that depression is great for creative genius, and it’s introduced so late in the play that it’s left largely uninterrogated.
Happiness Ltd is a hugely energetic play with some strong performances and a nicely realised aesthetic, but whilst it might be fun for the casual gamer, it falls short of getting to grips with some of the bigger issues it tries to tackle.
Happiness Ltd is on until 21 October 2017 at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter. Click here for more details.