17 October 2017.
Anna Jordan’s ‘Stay Happy, Keep Smiling’ is a collection of shattered fragments – six lives upended following a terrorist atrocity.
It opens with everyone on stage, almost frozen to the spot. Scraps of stories, jumbled feelings, they make little sense. Witnesses to something deeply shocking, they are still processing what they’ve seen. The stage clears and the focus shifts to them individually, details are shared and stories unfold.
The set is a compact cluster of domestic spaces, a hospital corridor and a road side barrier covered with tributes. Within these locations we see how people’s lives can be brought to a shuddering halt by a traumatic event. There’s a stressed out teacher unable to work and a terrified mother suddenly fearful for her family’s future. However, such an event can trigger other reactions. Characters who have experienced previous personal trauma are suddenly forced to confront buried feelings. Annie, a woman numb from the death of her baby, finds herself shocked back in to “feeling”. For some characters, experiencing such events can even lead eventually to positive change. In the aftermath a young gay man, Elliot, finds the strength to make a big decision. One way or another, these are all lives changed forever.
Anna Jordan has an admirable ability to create believable, complex characters and this is no exception. ‘Stay Happy, Keep Smiling‘ doesn’t contain the rage or caustic humour that can surface in some of Jordan’s previous work. It remains calm, as if refusing to be pushed towards sensationalism. It treats the subject with sensitivity. Although the event is instantly recognisable and can still be recalled in horrific detail there is no specific mention of any location and neither the victim nor the perpetrators are named. This isn’t a play seeking to tell their stories or attempting to explore or understand how it could happen. While the witnesses talk of their horror at what they have seen, only once do they go deeper in to the events themselves. Speaking to a therapist, Charlie Young’s Rita tries to imagine the victim’s last moments. How he came to the place where he died. As a parent she remembers hoping, in vain, that he doesn’t have a child. It’s a heartfelt moment of remembrance from a respectful distance.
The production is at its most gripping when the writing digs deep. There are some incredibly moving monologues as characters recall life-changing events. Lives and situations aren’t led along neat paths to achieve ‘closure’. Things can be complex and messy. When a journalist cynically attempts to push a man in to talking about his bottled up feelings and it spirals out of control, our sympathies are pulled back and forward.
Farrah’s story brings a different dimension. Witnessing the event awakens memories from her childhood of her father and brother being shot by American soldiers at a checkpoint in Iraq. Her recollections, woven throughout, are a reminder of the global reach of acts of violence and the ripples that such events can set in motion.
Here, lives are shaken out of kilter – a man unable or unwilling to feel anything (“all I want to do is work, sweat, fuck and drink”), a mother afraid to hold her children is comforted by her young son. Yet there is still comfort to be found in the everyday – moments of peace clutching a warm cup, the reassuring sound of a breakfast being made in a kitchen. People remember simple acts of kindness and greater acts of courage.
James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ is referenced early on and this too is a collection of short stories with characters experiencing life-changing moments. Although the stories are separate, the play emphasises their shared connection as the first words or actions of a new scene echo the last words of the previous ones. Similarly, characters will often remain silently in the background once their scene is over. Their experiences not capable of being neatly boxed in, they need time to recover or silently come to terms with their thoughts.
Perhaps because of its origins as a student graduation production, stage time is generously shared out across the cast. As such it’s a good fit to introduce MAP’s new repertory company and Anna Jordan has worked with them to develop the script for the play’s first professional production. It does sometimes still retain the feel of a showcase and the characters and stories have potential to develop further. There’s also an early scene set in a classroom that jarrs, with a slightly older cast it’s more Little Britain than Grange Hill, but once that’s out the way the production doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Jordan’s script is brought to life by a strong acting ensemble with powerful stand-out moments from Alexandra Maxwell (Annie), Simon Hallman (Elliot) and Parisa Nikkhah-eshghi (Farrah). Often with repertory companies, as is the case here, you have a stage packed with acting talent and with some in minor roles you don’t get to see them all at full stretch. It’s slightly frustrating but it bodes well for future MAP Rep productions.
‘Stay Happy, Keep Smiling‘ gathers pace and power as it goes along. It’s a timely consideration of how as a society we respond to acts of horrific violence. It doesn’t seek to offer answers – reflecting instead on how people somehow manage to keep going when confronted by the terrible frailty of life.