Happy Meal is an honest and unapologetic story of friendship from the margins that deserves second helpings, writes Patrick Gunasekera.
Happy Meal, Theatre Royal Plymouth and Roots
The Rechabite, 9 February 2023
Indulging a trip down memory lane, the Rechabite Hall reveals a vivacious online world projected onto two large mesh boxes – from the arctic silliness of Club Penguin to the passionate, text-heavy profiles of MySpace.
In this virtual safety net, two lonely teenagers reach out to each other. Alex (skilfully played by Sam Crerar), a mercurial high schooler who conceals his fears with a bigger online personality, uses multiple forums to find a new best friend in Bette (a vibrant Tommi Bryson).
Bette’s need for connection and acceptance imbues her online voice with firm confidence, which sometimes makes it harder for her to open up to Alex.
Written by UK-based playwright Tabby Lamb and directed by Jamie Fletcher, the design by Ben Stones (set and costume), Daniel Denton (video), Eliyana Evans (sound) and Kieron Johnson (lighting) is delightful, immersive, and crafty.
The script is comprised entirely of Alex and Bette’s message exchanges, sometimes projected playfully onstage as if reading a screen. Ranging from nerdy and brash to pleading and reassuring, Lamb’s unsparing text becomes a beautiful medium for the characters’ eager voices to shine.
Although the speedy, and I believe unmiked, dialogue is sometimes hard to hear clearly, the actors’ gregarious physicality is wonderful. From drunken text-stream monologues to hopefully written but ultimately unsent emails, Crerar and Bryson are a winning act, acutely realising the heartfelt interpersonal dilemmas of this story.
Alex and Bette’s fun online interactions make way for a real and daring look at the social challenges of being young and trans. These distinctive years of isolation, persistence and only having friends who are also living through complex trauma are made visible.
At times, the characters rely on attention to feel safe and are hurt by the vulnerability of coming out alone while grappling with the other’s absence. Happy Meal’s strength comes from giving the characters different stories and showing them grow at their own pace for different reasons.
Following the intimate trajectories of their self-growth and community building, an important conversation about trans love is centred with honesty, kindness, and quiet resilience.
The show’s minimal set amplifies the flux of the pair’s budding relationship, and their online worlds highlight how some young trans people cope with a lack of control and safety in their real lives.
In a world that throws endless hostility at them for merely existing, this play allows young trans people’s coping strategies to be explored without stigma or pity. By showing only what each character wants to say in their own words, without sensationalising their pain, Happy Meal values how they face life.
From awkward high-school adventures to the burnt-out struggles of uni life, to the more mellow tones of trans adulthood, Happy Meal gratifyingly rejects the reductive “before and after” narratives that many cis audiences are used to. It reckons with truly important questions.
A lack of safe development spaces and pressures to fit in the arts industry can produce very flat narratives of trans stories. The Happy Meal team have created a work that serves their own healing and resists social pressures for “respectable” trans stories with ease and realness.
Happy Meal carries the same freedom that trans youth valiantly create for each other every day. Its energetic, raw and determined character development beautifully explores the complexities of finding, hurting, and repairing the most important friendships that form through transitioning.
I hope to see this brilliant play return beyond Perth Festival. It offers a needed space of reflection for many and could enrich how trans stories are explored in West Australian theatres.
Pictured top: ‘Happy Meal’ is a two-hander with real heart and soul. Photo: Wendell Teodoro
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