A gently enveloping drama about online relationships, trans identity and self-discovery, the UK production Happy Meal is a warm hug of a two-hander performed by actors who first appear in penguin costumes on a confetti-littered stage.
Bette (Tommi Bryson) initially presents as self-confident to the point of cockiness, waving at audience members as they shuffle in and soon teasing the more withdrawn Alec (Sam Crerar) about his inability to successfully compete in the online game they’re playing together. But as the pair’s interactions shift from competition to conversation – and segueing from dial-up and MySpace to Facebook and Twitter as the years pass – a deepening but fragile friendship emerges.
Soon, the tables turn: it’s Alec who emerges as the more confident of the two while Bette begins to fall silent, afraid to meet her friend IRL because of a secret that’s she’s hidden since the earliest days of their deepening rapport – a friendship with the potential to grow into something even stronger, if only the pair can surmount the divide between them triggered by a stressful music festival experience.
Skilfully and sensitively directed by Jamie Fletcher from a script by Tabby Lamb, and presented by Theatre Royal Plymouth and Roots, Happy Meal acknowledges transphobia without ever descending into trauma-porn territory. Instead of heartbreak we’re offered hope; instead of didacticism, delight.
Ben Stone’s simple set – essentially two word balloons in which the actors stand, sit, lounge and eventually emerge from – helps focus the story as it unfolds across a decade, while Daniel Denton’s video design flows across the set in a nostalgic cascade of computer game graphics, band names, and online chat.
Bryson and Crerar’s performances are truthful and engaging, though the rapid pace of their non-amplified delivery meant that the occasional word or phrase was difficult to understand. Conversely, this also gave their performances a convincing verisimilitude as a flood of words and emotions tumbled from their characters’ teenaged lips. And with a one hour running time, Happy Meal is beautifully paced, transitioning effortlessly from comedy to drama to heart-warming romance.
In the early days of the internet, much was made of the ability to present as whoever one wanted to be – or needed to be – online. Here, that sometimes fraught concept becomes a means of celebration and self-discovery, as Bette and Alec embark on a journey to become the people they’ve always been. Holding hands on a bus has never been so celebratory, or so delightful.
By Tabby Lamb
Director: Jamie Fletcher
Performers: Sam Crerar and Tommi Bryson
Set & Costume Designer: Ben Stones
Video: Daniel Denton
Lighting Designer: Kieron Johnson
Sound Designer: Eliyana Evans
Dramaturg: Jennifer Bakst
The Rechabite, Northbridge
9-11 February as part of Perth Festival
The writer visited Perth as a guest of Perth Festival.