If there aren’t enough two-hander musicals about chemsex, then Happy has set the benchmark for the new genre unbearably and hilariously high.
Thom Sellwood, writer, director, and assistant choreographer of fringe smash-hit Snakes! (a musical parody of Snakes on a Plane) is pitching his new musical to us: Happy. It’s a music about love and chemsex, and stars a character that seems suspiciously like him. He’s enlisted the help of old friend and actor Carrie Marx to after the original actor dropped out. But as the pitch for Happy goes on, the show, and its performers, fall apart.
Chemsex, chemsex, chemsex! You can’t move for chemsex these days, from 5 Guys Chillin’, to theatrical monologues and cinematic documentaries. Getting off your face on Mephedrone and doing the dirty is LGBTQ theatre’s hot topic at the moment. We have verbatim and we have soliloquy’s but we don’t have musicals: until now. By (Boy) George, have we been missing out it would seem. Thom Sellwood and Carrie Marx pen Happy, billed as a chemsex musical, but it’s far more than what you might think. Although all singing and some dancing, Happy is a brilliant piece of metatheatre that is also as fantastically hilarious as it is deep and complex when it comes to tacking issues related to drug abuse and addiction.
The metaphysical framing device gives Sellwood and Marx to add incredibly cringe but laugh out loud moments to a subject that’s become a bit too earnest (but not any less important) of late. As the pitch goes on, and Sellwood seems to be not quite clean of his addiction much to the helpless onlooking of the audience and Marx, the presentation starts to crumble down to an impromptu ad hoc counselling session between the two of them. These moments are sparked with some hilarious one-liners that are so out of left-field and awkward that you have no idea whether you feel good or bad about crying with laughter. Yet despite these quips being hideously and brilliantly sardonic punctures to Happy, the metaphysical does give way to some incredibly deep and poignant issues, explored very honestly by Sellwood and Marx. Happy isn’t just about chemsex, it’s also about addiction, recovery, friendship, and longing, and you get the impression that the experiences, as presented here, are based in real life rather than outreach and research. Indeed, there are rants and diatribes from both characters that are really quite philosophical (and literally cheesy at one point) that really pack yet another unexpected pummel that is un-ignorable and really sticks with you.
Indeed, it’s so deep and personal that you honestly don’t know whether Happy is incredibly well investigated, or if it draws upon the real life experiences of both Sellwood and Marx. If the latter, this is an incredibly brave thing for both to do, and to dress it as such a well thought out and side-splittingly self-deprecatory show is beyond outstanding. Your diaphragm gets a good workout, but so does your empathy, understanding, and intelligence.
Music & Lyrics
Jordan Clarke’s music (with additional material by Robin Varley) is incredibly good. The songs are provocative, sweeping, and melodic. In fact, it’s a rather fantastic serious juxtaposition to the comic implosion of the evening. Sellwood’s lyrics often, although with some intentionally bad lines at times, manage to capture a very nuanced and poetic breadth of emotions relating to points in the show. Despite the cataclysmic pitch for Happy, the songs actually hook you right into the world and its fucked-up/drugged-up feelings that Sellwood is trying to put across. Clarke and Sellwood’s songs actually lift Happy beyond being just a fabulously dark comedy, adding another intricate layer of thought and enrichment that you really don’t expect, but are none the less incredibly impressed by.
Direction and Production
Sellwood and Marx’s performances really drive the show at every point, but also expertly drags out some of the uncomfortable moments to brilliantly funny effect. Even though you honestly don’t know where to look or how to respond at points, the it’s all never so drawn out that it starts to alienate the audience. You’re still with them and interested in what the hell is going on, even if you are chomping on your fist because it’s so wincing to watch.
There is also so great moments of light and sound execution, despite it being a very basic production (it’s a pitch, after all), supporting the show and making the music and the lights work, even if the rest of the show appears to be falling apart at the seams.
Both Sellwood and Marx give tremendous performances. What’s most impressive is that they both riff off each other and the audience too, seemingly ad libbing and improvising at points, giving Happy a real dynamic and spontaneous feel to it: further creating the illusion that this is an actual real life theatre pitch rather than an insanely well crafted piece of comic metatheatre. Sellwood’s performance of an actor becoming increasingly unhinged as he becomes more and more high is incredibly convincing, but what’s outstanding is how he transforms the energy and unpredictability of his state into a concentrated, controlled, and very deliberate presence, lucidity and verve. Marx is just brilliant as out-of-her-depths last resort for the pitch of Happy, to the point you honestly don’t know if she’s actually bewildered and unprepared for Sellwood’s behavior, or has one hell of a poker-face. Not to mention, Marx lends a sincerity, affection, and dulcet voice to the songs, and turns the tunes into genuinely special moments in Happy.
A beautifully cringeworthy and hilarious catastrophe, Happy is a show that really defies expectations in an astonishingly masterful and ingenious way: it’s better than (chem)sex!
Happy played at the Vaults Festival, London, SE1 7NN, between 1 – 5 February 2016. For more information about the festival, visit www.vaultfestival.com.