A middle aged, middle-class woman (Winnie), dressed fetchingly in pink, is buried up to her waist at the top of a massive grassy mound, itself stranded in a moat of inky black water. At the base of the mound, behind and below her, husband Willie snoozes next to a human-sized rabbit hole. Awakened by the shrill ring of an alarm and illuminated by an unforgiving bank of spotlights, Winnie begins to prattle on inconsequentially and to busy herself with the minutiae of making herself presentable. It is absurd and comedic – and yet it becomes a profound and haunting reflection on the ways in which we find value and assert agency in the most limiting of circumstances.
Happy Days is a play of subtext, and Maxine Peake’s forensically detailed and animated performance (as Winnie) ensures that every line, every pause and every action delivers its considerable emotional freight with the lightest possible touch. In a sing-song, Home Counties, RP accent, she chirpily enumerates all the things there are to be thankful for and displays rapt interest in the print on her toothbrush handle or the grammatically correct pronoun for hair (‘it’ or ‘them’?). And yet, intermittently, a quivering lower lip, trembling hand, tightly set jaw or sudden shrillness reveals a woman whose determined positivity is her last defence against despair. There are also moments of tremendous poignancy when, as she says apologetically, “sorrow keeps breaking in”, and her vulnerability surfaces; “Was I loveable once, Willie?” Peake navigates these changes of pace and scales the emotional range with ease and astonishing precision.
In Act Two, Winnie is completely immobilised – buried up to her neck. No pretty pink hat, no bright pink lipstick. The tone has shifted. Darker, more repetitive, raw. Winnie talks directly into a tiny camera, and her ‘talking head’ image is projected onto screens, drained of all colour. The impact is disturbing; it feels like she is addressing me directly, and the close-up camera picks up everything – tears, runny nose, fear … The emotional intensity is such that I have to shift my gaze back to the mound just for some relief.
Winnie’s relationship with Willie (David Crellin) is beautifully drawn and troubling. When he’s awake (which is not often), Willie is absorbed in reading small ads in the newspaper or looking at a pornographic postcard. There is almost no communication between them – he is silent and largely unresponsive. But he is there. And this mere presence is of central significance to Winnie. When she drops her parasol, he is suddenly there to catch it, and even the remote possibility that he is listening to her musings is sufficient to ward off any feeling of loneliness. On the rare occasions that he gives a monosyllabic reply, Winnie is ecstatic: “this is going to be a happy day!” Despite having no practical impact on her daily life – and, indeed, not even being properly visible to her – Winnie seems to depend on Willie’s simple existence for validation.
Happy Days may be a metaphor for a long-term relationship, or for the ageing process, or for any kind of circumstance in which we become voluntarily or involuntarily trapped, or, indeed, for the ‘human condition’. It might be a portrait of the way in which, whatever the objective constraints of a situation, the reality of any experience is individual, subjective and complex. It may show us how meaning can be found or invested in the most unlikely of objects, events or rituals. It may be a celebration of the human spirit. Or all of the above. I suspect that it will resonate in different ways for everyone who engages with it – and perhaps differently on different occasions that they see it. That is its power. I personally found it desperately moving and sad. Next time I see it (and there will be a next time), I may agree with the publicity which describes it as ‘life-affirming’. Who knows?
What I do know is that I am totally in awe of Maxine Peake.