Review: Happy Ending, Arcola Theatre

“To be or not to be. That is not the question. The question is how to be”

What does cancer look like to you? If it is personified as a dancing Spaniard with crab claws for hands, then I might just have the thing for you. Billed as “a musical-comical fantasy about a subject that people don’t talk about”, Happy Ending runs the risk of becoming a show that people won’t dare to talk about due to a series of baffling decisions pertaining to almost every aspect of a production that is challenging to watch. Naturally, a show about cancer is never going to be easy but it is the misjudgements rather than the subject matter that prove most difficult.

It shouldn’t be like this. The show is based on playwright Anat Gov’s own experience with the disease, which took her life in 2012 and as such, is suffused with acutely observed detail (the overwhelming amount of supplementary medicine, the different coping mechanisms people develop, the mordant humour on the ward) that will be horribly recognisable to many. But in Hilla Bar and director Guy Retallack’s adaptation, something is significantly awry and most crucially, it is with the piped-through musical numbers – which can be counted on the fingers of one hand – by Shlomi Shaban and Michal Solomon.

Not especially musical, certainly not comical enough and fantastical to the point of irrelevance, they push the show into the weirdest place but to such little substantive effect – this is not a musical by any definition commonly agreed. But nor is a good play – feted actress Carrie’s journey to self-realisation fails to convince at any point (she has stage 4 cancer yet somehow doesn’t know what it means, even whilst receiving chemotherapy for it) and Gillian Kirkpatrick struggles gamely to make something believable out of a real cypher of a character.

What strength there is in the writing comes (intermittently) through the three Jewish women with whom she shares a ward as they debate the benefits of treatment versus the quality of life that may be sustained – Andrea Miller’s feisty Silvia the best of the bunch. Even here though, there’s awkwardness, their underexplored experiences somehow diminished in the face of Carrie’s realisations, the confused tone of the production detracting from what depth there is in the writing. But as with the bags of green diarrhoea that float by during one of the songs, it is perversely hard to look away from what is unfolding in front of you.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Piers Foley Photography
Booking until 7th March

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