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Happy Days, Royal Exchange, Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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Stuck in the middle with you
In 2016, Maxine Peake gave a memorable performance as Blanche Du Bois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.

Now she is back at the Royal Exchange playing another elegant and vulnerable lady – Winnie – albeit in a very different set of circumstances.

All things considered, Winnie does not have a lot to be happy about. She is, in the words of Samuel Beckett's stage directions: "Embedded up to above her waist in exact centre of mound." Her husband, Willie (David Crellin), lives a badger-like existence in a hole – periodically emerging to sleep in the sun and read out fractured sentences from his newspaper.

It's a bizarre situation, which must nonetheless chime with many long-married couples. "I am not merely talking to myself," Winnie states – referring to Willie and maybe us, her audience.

Theatre, Maxine Peake, Manchester, Samuel Beckett, Happy Days, Royal Exchange
Maxine Peake as Winnie. Photo by Johan Persson.

Winnie – described by Beckett as "a woman of about fifty" - relies on rituals, memories, life-affirming statements and the poetry of her language to make it through another day. Maxine Peake can currently be seen at cinemas in the film Funny Cow. She plays an aspiring comedian in the traditionally male-world of the 1970's – 80's club circuit.

It would be interesting to know how much of that experience fed into this performance. Samuel Beckett's play (first performed in New York in 1961) is a near monologue for Winnie. Maxine Peake's timing and tonal shifts were spot on – if they had not been it, would have made for a long hour and forty-five minutes.

She delivered Winnie's lines in a sing-song voice which reminded me slightly of Patricia Routledge playing the wonderfully snobbish Hyacinth Bucket in the BBC sitcom Keeping up Appearances.

Theatre, Maxine Peake, Manchester, Samuel Beckett, Happy Days, Royal Exchange
David Crellin as Willie. Photo by Johan Persson.

Director Sarah Frankcom has built up a creatively rewarding partnership with Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange – she directed the Bolton-born actress in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Skriker and Hamlet.

Just as Samuel Beckett directed Billie Whitelaw in Happy Days, at the Royal Court Theatre, Sarah Frankcom must have embarked on the project, safe in the knowledge that she was working with an actress would could meet the demands of such an unconventional role.

Staging a drama in which the central character cannot move would be a challenge at any theatre, especially a theatre-in-the-round, like the Royal Exchange. Designer Naomi Dawson and her technical team dealt with this dilemma by making the mound revolve.

I only missed the occasional word – usually before audience laughter broke out. The lighting is so bright at times that I had to close my eyes. In the programme, Naomi Dawson talks of deliberately overusing the electric at one moment, so that the system trips - for dramatic impact.

Photo by Johan Persson.
Photo by Johan Persson.

Luckily, the revolving mound did not break down both before and after the interval (in which the audience is asked to vacate the auditorium and enjoy a drink or ice cream in the surrounding space).

After the interval, I did spot the occasional vacated seat – perhaps confirming that Becket's work will never win over one hundred percent of those who see it.

In the second half, when only Winnie's head is visible, a circle of screens is placed above Maxine Peake's head – so that she is acting both to the audience and into a tiny camera.

"Words fail, there are times when even they fail", Winnie says to Willie. "What is one to do then, until they come again?", she adds.

Happy Days is a play about language and how it opens up our lives in the most restrictive of circumstances. It is shame that Beckett is not around to see Maxine Peake in Manchester, sing out the meaning and music of his beguiling and enchanting script.

Theatre, Maxine Peake, Manchester, Samuel Beckett, Happy Days, Royal Exchange
Foyer of the Royal Exchange.

2018 is another busy year at the Royal Exchange for Maxine Peake, as her own play Queens of the Coal Age is at the theatre from 28 June to 28 July.

She is also in Mike Leigh forthcoming film Peterloo, about political protest in Manchester, 1819.

Manchester, Samuel Beckett, Happy Days, Royal Exchange
Samuel Beckett. By Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain,

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Why? Maestro Maxine in Absurd Classic
When: 25 May - 23 June 2018
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester
Cost: From £10
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