Although there has been a surprisingly high number of new productions created during the pandemic, lockdowns, work restrictions and social distancing have also seen companies revisiting some of their greatest hits. It’s been particularly useful to have an ace up the collective sleeve when the game keeps changing so rapidly and so often. Small scale shows have been able to go back to original casts who would otherwise have been left jobless and revive productions that first saw the light of day some time ago.
One such is Silent Uproar’s cabaret style show A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad). This first saw the light of day at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 but was filmed for release online just last month at Wilton’s Music Hall in front of a socially distanced live audience.
Depression, the topic of this show, is certainly not the most obvious subject for a feel good musical and, despite the upbeat title it is not a relentlessly cheery experience (and all the better for that). It certainly starts out that way though with the three performers breaking into a fun routine as soon as they get onstage exuding vigour and performing with pace and drive.
Teenager Sally apparently has everything going for her with a can do attitude, an inclination towards hard partying and a bright future where she hopes to take on the world and win. Almost overnight everything changes and she becomes demotivated, isolated and unable to cope though she would rather die than admit it. Churchill (following the lead of Samuel Johnson) famously characterised depression as a black dog and in a nice piece of ironic symbolism that is exactly what Sally becomes. Dressed in a canine onesie she takes on the role of a chugger (charity mugger) as it is just about the only job she can hold down and that none too well either. Her love of music leaves her – in a telling scene she ritually smashes her CDs and she becomes even further isolated and withdrawn.
Relationships are well-nigh impossible though she does find a real friend in Toby the geeky next door neighbour with a penchant for the collected works of Meatloaf who bolsters her confidence as much as he can but has some issues of his own. Sally also finds some understated support from Karen her boss at work and, when she eventually plucks up courage to visit a support group, Tash who helps her to put things into perspective.
The three performers are so well rehearsed into their roles which they have been playing on and off for years that it is remarkable that they still manage to make everything seem so fresh, none more so than Madeleine MacMahon as Sally. I thought for a time that this was a case of an actor fictionalising and presenting their own real story but actually it is the result of a highly sensitive and nuanced performance which nails the debilitating effects of this still misunderstood condition.
There is comprehensive support from Sophie Clay and Ed Yelland who play all the other roles with panache and sensitivity avoiding the broad brushstrokes of cliched characterisation which they could so easily have gone for, to present us with a series of three dimensional figures with their own inner lives. Composer Matthew Floyd Jones joins the trio onstage behind keyboards and makes the occasional wry interjection. Writer Jon Brittain’s accessible script neatly divides Sally’s journey into six chapters and director Alex Mitchell handles the switches from upbeat to bruising reality with assurance.
Gradually Sally climbs out of the dark hole in which she finds herself and experiences some relative normality before falling back even deeper (any resemblance to our collective Covid experience is absolutely one of my own construction). This section of the show is certainly not “super happy” or even “super sad” – it is chillingly tragic. However, the piece does end positively and with a message of hope for us all that there is a way through this (again, any resemblance, etc.) It would have been easy for this show just to be “worthy”; instead, it is an entertaining and informative hour spent in the company of a group that has refined its product to a high degree and deserves to keep having success with this always timely piece.