With a smattering of new acting talent and a wealth of familiar faces, the cast of We Happy Few received well-earned applause on the opening night of a four-date run at Neimënster’s Salle Robert Krieps.
I mention the name of the auditorium because Krieps was interned in three concentration camps, including Dachau, during the second world war. We Happy Few broaches the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime under Hitler by introducing a Jewish mother and teenage son who have fled to England, leaving behind the father who stays to continues his work as a paediatrician--this information is vital towards the climax of the play.
The Rosenbaums, Gertrude and Joseph (a suitably dignified Elke Murdoch and a nicely naïf Alessandro Stasi), are taken in by Reggie Pelmet (Bjorn Clasen). Reggie is the cousin of Flora (Lindsay Wegleitner), who together with best friend Hetty Oak (June Lowery) sets up an all-female theatre troupe, the Artemis Players that will bring Shakespeare and other classics to the suffering children of Britain.
The antics surrounding the casting call and subsequent early rehearsals of this gaggle of thespian strays and complete novices make for a very amusing first half of the play. The text is packed with neat one-liners and snide asides that are, for the most part, delivered with exquisite timing and panache. But until the interval the characters are rather superficially drawn, save for Hetty, who in the hands of Lowery is a natural, but secretly emotionally fraught leader of the pack.
If the first half is light and genteelly nostalgic--and expertly paced by director Tony Kingston--the second half, quite literally, produces emotional bombshell after bombshell.
Romance blossoms, characters who were subdued or kooky find their voice, a domineering actress learns humility. The ever-excellent Wegleitner delivers the show’s centrepiece, a devastatingly revealing monologue that brings the audience to the verge of tears. Relative newcomer Kim Birel and the immensely watchable Helena O’Hare as daughter and mother have some electrifying exchanges. It really is a fine ensemble performance. Jessica Whitely is as good as ever as an “eccentric lady” and elicits some of the biggest laughs of the evening, while Clara Salgueiro-O’Hare and Catriona Gillham do sterling work in multiple roles.
There is real tenderness between Birel and Gina Millington, who at a young age can by now be considered a veteran of BGT productions. RachelKathryn Lloyd as the ditzy but charming American maid to Reggie showcases her powerful singing voice and the knack for quickfire comedy that she displayed in The Coronavirus Chronicles, but also evokes real pathos later in the play.
Which brings us neatly to the obvious parallels that the cast skilfully draw between the suffering and despair and hope and community spirit that marked British society during WWII and the overwrought reactions to the covid pandemic. Lowery’s Hettie basically spells out the utter absurdity of the first-world problems that the Artemis Players complain about while men lie dying on barbed wire fences in France.
At times the text is mawkish and overwrought, and the last act is almost relentless in its relay of devastation, but this is a slick and enjoyable production that has something for everyone.
We Happy Few is on at Neimënster on Thursday 2, Friday 3 and Saturday 4 December at 7.30pm. There is also a performance at 2.30pm on 4 December. Info and tickets here.