‘Maxine Peake gives a perfectly-measured powerhouse performance’: HAPPY DAYS – Manchester ★★★★

In Manchester, Opinion, Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews by Kristy StottLeave a Comment

Royal Exchange, Manchester – until 23 June 2018
Guest reviewer: Daniel Shipman

Happy Days is one of the jewels in Samuel Beckett’s mightily impressive crown. A two-hander which primarily focuses on the simple but comforting routine of Winnie – who is buried up to her waist, then up to her neck in soil – it presents a mammoth challenge to any actress. As you might expect, Maxine Peake, under Sarah Frankcom’s direction, meets this challenge head-on and gives a perfectly-measured powerhouse performance.

The huge mound of soil necessary for this play makes it a bold choice for the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round stage, but Naomi Dawson’s set design makes light work of what could have been a major problem. The rotating set and camera trained on Peake’s face ensure that every seat feels like a front-row without sacrificing the liveness of the theatrical exchange.

The slowly, constantly turning mound perfectly echoes the circular nature of the character’s dialogue, and indeed her life – slowly accumulating soil, like emotional baggage, until she is quite literally up to her neck in it. This also acts as a subtle memento mori, lending the evening an almost imperceptible air of sorrow and impending doom that intentionally never quite materialises.

The tight close-up on Peake’s face in the second act raises a tricky mix of the challenges presented by both live and filmed acting, but she relishes this challenge. Here, Winnie’s discomfort is palpable despite the rictus grin she occasionally plasters across her face in a vain attempt to disguise it. She is torturously close but physically unable to reach the comforts of routine provided by her bag, or even the possibility of final release offered by her revolver.

Beckett’s penchant for repetition is deployed perfectly, giving rise to comedy in the first act and pathos in the second. The production pulls off this impressive tonal shift without losing the heart of the characters. Remarkably, Peake even transfers Winnie’s nervous shake from her upper body in to her jaw.

Some of the potential tenderness of Winnie and Willie’s relationship is sacrificed in the first act in search of laughs, and this puts a small dent in the emotional sledgehammer that is the second act. But realistically, you’re unlikely to see a finer performance all year.

-Daniel Shipman

The post Review: Happy days at the Royal Exchange appeared first on UPSTAGED MANCHESTER.

Kristy Stott
Kristy Stott, editor of Upstaged Manchester, is an entertainment journalist, theatre critic and general arts lover. Kristy has been an avid follower of the Manchester theatre scene for as long as she can remember and has written for WhatsOnStage, the Library Theatre Company and Cornerhouse Manchester. Kristy is also news editor and presenter for Trafford Sound community radio.
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Kristy Stott
Kristy Stott, editor of Upstaged Manchester, is an entertainment journalist, theatre critic and general arts lover. Kristy has been an avid follower of the Manchester theatre scene for as long as she can remember and has written for WhatsOnStage, the Library Theatre Company and Cornerhouse Manchester. Kristy is also news editor and presenter for Trafford Sound community radio.