Writer: Brendan Cowell
Director: Robert Shaw
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Brendan Cowell wrote Happy New as his second play when he was only 23, creating a mature and deeply touching piece of theatre. Using language that makes large sections of the work seem like performance at a particularly well staged poetry reading, this is theatre on many levels. The work darts from absurd comedy to disturbed sadness at the turn of a fast paced phrase and takes its audience through a perfectly paced plot to an ending that satisfies and deeply saddens.
Darren and Lyle were abandoned by their mother when they were 10 and 12 years old respectively. She locked them in a chicken coop where they survived for months by eating their clucking pen-mates before being found. Their story was told on the news by Pru, the woman who Darren is in a relationship with throughout the play and who makes the third character in the piece. The play starts a few hours before the new year begins and follows in near real time the brothers’ struggle to gird themselves mentally against their impending expulsion from their flat and forced entry into the world to make a proper life for themselves in the year ahead.
The brothers are clearly deeply affected by their abandonment and incarceration and throughout the play as more of their story is told the deeper their cracks are revealed to be. When they become stressed or agitated, for example, they revert back to behaving like chickens, clucking and scratching at the ground. Their world view is dictated by the dynamics of a group of chickens in a pen, one that sees them basically incapable of functioning in the world of man.
As a device, Cowell’s chicken coop is highly effective as a way to get across the play’s central messages. There are notes about being trapped, about observed behaviour verses what happens when there are no prying eyes. The audience is made to reflect on voyeurism, on television, on abuse, on opportunism and on several other things. The complexity and density of the script as well as the quite often stunning poetry is what elevates this from an enjoyable play to a great one.
What elevates it further are the outstanding performances from the three actors. Joel Samuels gives an energetic and beautiful performance as Lyle (as he did first time around in the Old Red Lion), and plays a haunted, violent, insane and utterly heartbreaking man. William Troughton as the elder brother Danny was a superb bit of casting as he delivers a nuanced and highly impactive performance as a man rendered impotent by his mother, his brother and lover and the rest of the watching world. Lisa Dillon’s angry, manipulative and destructive Pru is the tie the binds the brothers to the world, a connection that is at the core of this piece.
Between the three actors, Cowell’s astonishing writing, Robert Shaw’s direction, Lily Arnold’s intelligently designed set and Johanna Town’s lighting a remarkable piece of theatre has been created at Trafalgar Studios. The language, the poetry and the imagery created is unlike anything else on stage in the city, or possibly the country, at the moment and is worth going for alone. When combined with the performances and direction, it makes Happy New unmissable.