by Peter Callaghan
We gather in the foyer of Dance City in Newcastle after writing an example of what makes us happy on the back of an illuminous post-it note and sticking it onto a board next to the box office: friends, family, laughter, children, nature, a bag of chips. There’s always one!
Two thirty-somethings with a spring in their step and a twinkle in their eyes which suggest the smell of greasepaint engage us in conversation about this and that. Mostly that. That being the theme of the show: happiness and our search thereof.
Are you excited about meeting the guru? Keep on smiling young man, he’ll like that. If you’re feeling so-so, don’t worry. Because he’ll soon lift you out of the depths of despair and change your life forever. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and remember to buy his DVD. And if you want an autograph, no problem. But you’ll have to supply your own pen and paper. Because happiness like money doesn’t grow on trees.
Come show time, we are ushered into a huddle outside the theatre door (“we don’t do queues”) and invited by our CBBC-enthused performers to join them in a game of bouncing our knees. “Hopefully not for long,” sneers an elderly man with a Mount Rushmore face and a Chic Murray tongue for a put-down.
“Come on: bouncy, bouncy! Come on: bouncy, bouncy!” Think Bonnie Langford on speed. “Breathe in…and breathe out. Breathe in… and breathe out.” Think Bonnie Langford post-spliff. “Are you ready? Is he ready? Then let’s go.” Think Bonnie Langford as the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The doors slowly open. An usher guides us to our seats. The guru patiently awaits.
Centre stage, with his back to the audience, a tall man in a grey suit with a handlebar moustache and a pair of dazzling shoes. Stage left, a willowy musician with an electric guitar. Stage right, a mountain of shredded paper which looks like a heap of autumnal leaves suggesting a life in tatters, a tearing up of the rulebooks, a load of sound and fury signifying nothing, a valiant attempt to create order out of chaos.
A quick pirouette reveals the guru’s Colgate smile which is as wide and red as the Forth Bridge. And in the style of a Deep South preacher or an Oprah Winfrey life coach or a multi-millionaire practitioner of positive thinking (hence previous talk of DVDs, autographs and merchandise), happiness we are told in a quick-fire peroration similar to Lucky out of Waiting For Godot lies within. We can’t make it or fake it or shake it out of the money tree.
For the remaining sixty minutes, the three performers (Edward Rapley, Mark Spencely and the company’s titular artistic director Karla Shacklock) supported by Caspar Riis on guitar open their hearts and take us on an exploratory journey about happiness through improvisational dance and scripted song, physical theatre and confessional monologue, silence and rage, titters and tears.
From searching, clutching, grasping, reaching, fighting, racing and clambering for happiness along a narrow corridor of endless white. To sitting in silence in the here and now reflecting on the serenity that being in the moment brings. From walking round and round in circles, chasing our tails, repeating the same old mistakes over and over again and stressing out about our inability to fathom the meaning of life. To playfully grabbing a handful of leaves, throwing them up into the air and watching them fall to the ground like lost hopes and dreams, content in the knowledge what will be will be, life is a mystery and it’s okay not to know. The gamut of human emotions are explored.
Most powerfully through first person narrative where each performer has their moment in the spotlight and bares their soul about longing for children, craving for sex, needing to be loved and to connect. Each part-scripted, part-improvised monologue – sometimes delivered to the audience, other performers or themselves – sharing the common themes of an aching emptiness and a gritty determination to keep going, to keep going, no matter what it takes, to fill the gaping hole with… To quote Prince Charles when asked if he was “in love” with his newly wed wife Diana: “whatever ‘in love’ means.” REM’s Everybody Hurts springs to mind.
I could be cynical and say that The Happiness – co-commissioned by Pavilion Dance South West and Theatre Bristol, with support from Swindon Dance and Arts Council England – should be subtitled “A 101 things to do with a brush and a pile of leaves”, because they are continuously used to shape the space, link the sequences and move the action on when an idea comes to a moving conclusion or in some cases fizzles out. And some of the group choreography could do with tightening up. But what shines through is a joy of life, a fearsome honesty to confront the unspoken and a playful sense of humour which holds our attention throughout and invites us to remember what we already know: money, possessions, exotic holidays and designer clothes may offer fleeting moments of happiness; but “whatever ‘in love’ means” enriches us with something deeper, satisfying and long-lasting.