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.
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