Hope has a Happy Meal in the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs

It seems fair to separate my criticism of Tom Fowler’s new play from its production, directed by Lucy Morrison. Morrison, together with her set and costume designer, Naomi Dawson, and with lighting by Anna Watson and sound by Annie May Fletcher, creates a sensationalist but coherent world. The production takes us to a technicolour dystopia almost reminiscent of the Lyric Hammersmith’s recent revival of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan. Unfortunately, however, Fowler’s play is both incoherent and thin – despite its ambitions to apply a Swiftian satire to many pressing problems of the modern age. Rather than being ominous or compelling – or funny – the play’s cruelty and shtick mix to form a wearying series of familiar tropes that go nowhere because the plot moves with much melodrama but very little purpose.

Hope has a Happy Meal RC Production. Credit Helen Murray.
Hope has a Happy Meal RC Production. Credit Helen Murray.

Hope (Laura Checkley) is a middle-aged white woman (as the script specifies) who is returning to find her sister, Lor (Amaka Okafor) – a middle-aged Black woman (as the script specifies) after many years of familial estrangement. We never learn why Hope left or why she has finally decided to return when she does. Although there is much discussion of Hope’s abandonment of her son and ‘having her reasons’, those reasons are never explored even if plenty of family rage ensues on the matter. On the path to finding her sister, Hope encounters Isla (Mary Malone) a waitress in her twenties or early thirties who has taken on the care of her nephew after her sister, the baby’s mother, is murdered by an abusive former partner who was a police officer, Wayne (Felix Scott) and who wants the custody of the baby. The script specifies that Isla must never be played by a cis-gender person although the character’s gender is never explored in the play except with a brief reference to Isla as, ‘a transgender waitress’. The script also mandates that Wayne must always be a white, cis man – presumably because he’s awful. If only the script were as focused on storytelling and characterisation as it is on casting.

A sort of road trip to the ‘BP Nature Reserve’ (ironic, get it?) ensues as Hope and her comrades search for her estranged sister. Of course, they are hotly pursued by all manner of ominous corporate goons – of whom sinister policeman Wayne C (couldn’t possibly be a coincidence?) is amongst them, motivated by his desire to snatch his son from the infant’s loving aunt. Happily, Hope and Isla interrupt a suicide attempt by distraught forest ranger Alex (Nima Taleghani) and, miraculously recovered from self-immolating depression, he now decides to join the travellers – except here comes evil Wayne. Thankfully the newly undepressed Alex shows just what a hero and a dab hand at combat he is, melting Isla’s heart with his interventions (in the tropiest ‘damsel-in-distress’ way) such that they capture Wayne and continue their journey to Lor’s abode. Although the commune is no longer there – a dystopian sell-out to corporate interests is mentioned but never exploed – the foursome, plus the baby, come together in a sort of domestic idyll – united in the simple pleasures of a cooking rota and as captors of the murderous Wayne.

Within the soapy family drama, there are occasional interstitials of Hope’s interior world, plus further exterior world-building, such as a cruel game show embracing the classic dystopian depictions of say Orwell’s Daily Hate or the ultra-violence of a corporate-controlled future a la 1975 film Rollerball. All this mad-capped indictment of surrendered individuality and capitalist corruption might have been interesting but the melodrama at the heart of the plot is hackneyed and predictable. Each of the performers is capable (Felix Scott shows a particular range) but the lines they are given seem to lead mostly to shoutiness. Instead of Jonathan Swift or Marge Piercy provoking us intellectually and emotionally, we have a kind of formulaic remake of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy told in the style of Tarantino – with less dramatic originality or coherence than a typical Eastenders episode. Sadly, much of the play feels derivative and not a particularly compelling homage.

2 gold stars

Review by Mary Beer

“Hope? Hope, is that you?”

Years and years ago, Hope disappeared. Now, she’s back. To find something she left behind.

But in the People’s Republic of Koka Kola – a world of dwindling resources, corruption and corporate giants – what happens to Hope?

Follow Hope on a surreal and frenetic quest through a hyper-capitalist country in this new play by Tom Fowler, directed by Royal Court Associate Director, Lucy Morrison.

Hope has a Happy Meal is a co-production with SISTER

ROYAL COURT THEATRE
Sloane Square
London SW1W 8AS

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