It’s difficult to critique plays that are in any way autobiographical, especially when they’re about grief and loss. But Happiness is a Cup of Tea left me pondering the difficulty.
In this hour-long monologue, Fiona Nash (Annie McKenzie, also the playwright) is forced to come to terms with the sudden death of her mother. Her immediate reaction is to run away, down the road to Beachy Head, where she naturally begins to contemplate our attitudes towards death.
Understandably the emotion is raw, intense and maintained at full throttle throughout, which is the main problem. It is to McKenzie’s credit that her performance is able to capture the hurt and agony Fiona is experiencing. The audience are expected to feel the pain too, simply because they’re told that it’s a heart-breaking experience. But when you begin at a height, where else is there to go? There is no development, and this makes the hour difficult to sit through.
The narrative events recounted are fractured, representative of Fiona’s mind-set, and far from laid out in chronological order. But the touching and complex details about Fiona’s mother are left until last. Perhaps if we’d been endeared by her in the first third, it would have been easier to feel something for her loss later.
This issue is not helped by a melodramatic script with an extremely limited vocabulary. Fiona’s father has died seven years earlier, and her mother is described as “paralysed” by this loss. We are told this rather simply, and repeatedly. At one point the whole experience is described as “sad”.
There are other touches that McKenzie uses to help carry the theme of mortality. An enormous Plexiglas® block of a telephone box, which takes up about a third of the stage, rings on occasion. Presumably it’s a replica of those installed by suicide prevention charities. It’s of no use to Fiona: the problem is too weighty for someone to council her through. McKenzie does well not to overly address this, leaving the audience to do the work. Likewise, her use of the Selkie myth – in which a fisherman captures the beautiful Selkie for seven years – is used to represent the effects of her father’s death. It’s a brave move – ensuring that her parents’ relationship is itself a source of tragedy, rather than a model for marital bliss.
When the eponymous idea of finding joy in a warm cup of Tetleys is predictably introduced, it seems wholly trivial. The script doesn’t do enough to balance these lighter touches with the crushing loss of Fiona’s mother. The material she is working with is so emotionally dense, but ultimately I left feeling like it’s been beaten into the shape of something without backbone or substance.
Happiness Is A Cup of Tea is playing at The Vaults as part of the VAULT Festival until 28 February. For more information and tickets, see the VAULT Festival website. Photo: Melanie Smith