To all intents and purposes Happy Ending is a musical about cancer. Not two words frequently paired together ‘musical’ and ‘cancer’ and with good reason. ‘Happy’ and ‘ending’ presents a similar oxymoron, but refers to preferences of death and one woman’s quest to garner at least some control over her own end.
Happy Ending has been translated by Hilla Bar from Anat Gov’s original Hebrew, referencing the writer’s own experiences as a terminal cancer patient – a therapeutic and drug-fuelled account of her journey to her happy end. It focuses on the unique and intense bond between patients fighting the cancerous villain for their unique lives as they journey to their unique deaths. This version lacks that drive of the personal struggle; it also lacks the humour that is naturally derived from the most hideous of situations.
First of all Happy Ending is not a musical. There are four songs, attached to some movement that certainly doesn’t constitute a routine, spanning some of the classics of musical theatre from jazz hands, to an impassioned patient-doctor love number, to a salsa involving a character representing cancer by wearing a cummerbund and crab claws. These musical interludes were lumbered into the narrative just as the audience might be finding an emotional connection to the characters, as if to stop that attachment dead in its tracks and replace it with a jarring, non-enhancing song.
Admittedly cancer as a theme requires lightening up a bit and there is a humour to it; there has to be or no one would ever get through it. Our protagonist is a well-known theatre actress Carrie Evans (Gillian Kirkpatrick) who has miraculously and inexplicably made it to her first round of chemotherapy without once being told that she is suffering from stage 4 cancer. Not so inconceivable when it transpires that this ward also turns somewhat of a blind eye to the smoking of marijuana, allows the constant use of mobile phones and provides a comedic mobile wig service to each bed.
Kirkpatrick’s character witnesses the continuous fight and degradation of the other patients and foresees her own epic fall from grace, deciding to overturn the medical system and refuse treatment: “To be or not to be. That is not the question. The question is how to be.” She does this rather unsympathetically, wearing sunglasses for the majority of her stage time and flouncing about the ward with an ‘I’m better than this’ attitude. She is portrayed as a feather-ruffling, trouble causer for most of the play while the other characters are doing everything in their power to survive.
The comedy comes in the form of two other patients in their mid-60s played by Karen Archer and Andrea Miller whose strong-willed struggle with the disease is reinforced with girders of optimism and humour. They prescribe themselves various potions of fenugreek and horse’s milk to better increase their chances. The knowledge of what the other is enduring creates a bond of wit and emotional grit between them, humanising a disease that is so common and yet always seems so far away and unfathomable.
Personally, I would have like to have seen more relationships such as this, building a natural comedy within a horrific situation, in place of the musical routines. Laughter brings emotion closer to the surface making way for tears at bitter endings. I don’t think that Happy Ending was ever intended to be a full-blown ‘musical about cancer’ but more a fantastical and light-hearted(ish) portrayal of what it’s like when you lose control of your body through disease, your mind through medication, and your life while you bear it. The embodiment of a hallucinogenic side effect. This production lacked some smoothness into these transitions and a touch of heart in their protagonist. Because, let’s face it, cancer is linked in someway to every single audience member so the humanity of it ought to be centre stage.
Happy Ending is playing the Arcola Theatre until 7 March. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo by Piers Foley.