One would imagine that a man who wrote a book entitled How To Be Happy would be a guru of finding joy amongst life’s anxious moments. But Paul is in the same miserable state as the rest of the world. This is the angle of writer and director David Lewis’ new play of the same name, looking into what truly makes us happy and providing an intuitive insight into the front-room conversations of middle-class Britain.
The stark black and white set, designed by Sam Dowson, provides an ironic backdrop as the characters struggle with the ‘grey’ areas of life and try make some sense out of several messy relationships. Paul Kemp takes the writer’s role as grumpy misanthropist and makes him a completely dislikeable character and yet 100% relatable to the audience. His fluctuating desperation and frustration are relevant to young and old alike and make this character both annoying and sympathetic; Kemp taps in to that dormant feeling of suppression and expresses what we are all thinking in a way that is not patronising but rather liberating.
Similarly, Kate Miles’ portrayal of Emma is at times difficult to watch as she does a complex and in-depth character real justice – a divorcee struggling with a technology-obsessed husband and moody teenager, whilst constantly at odds with ex-husband Paul. You cannot envy people in such circumstances, and yet at the same time Miles gives a stark picture of her private moments on the sofa. The things we never let others see.
Kate Lamb was a very strong teenage Daisy without playing it too young or being condescending, And Carolyn Backhouse showed hints of sitcom in Katy, but as a woman attempting to put on a front in the face of impending poverty, this falseness was both necessary and well performed. Steven Elder was the most subtle member of the cast as Graham who is always trying to appease Emma in spite of her anger and stubbornness. The audience is drawn to sympathise with him and makes his final exit wholly acceptable as we watched him find no peace in his home.
How To Be Happy is realism at its best, whilst making great use of the Orange Tree space by creating split scenes over the mutual sofa in a way that never detracted from the speech. Lewis evidently has a real talent for picking on life and recreating it with ease, making this play both enjoyable and enlightening to an audience of any age.
How To Be Happy is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 5th November. For more information and tickets, see the website. Photo by Robert Day.