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Happiness by Marilia Samper – Cervantes Theatre

What even is happiness? I suppose it goes beyond the absence of unhappiness, though that’s a contributing factor. What makes one person happy may make another person uncomfortable, and as the old adage – and the narrative in this play – would have it, it is quite impossible to please all of the people all of the time. Julia (Jeryl Burgess), for instance, is happy so long as her son Eli (Reece Pantry) is happy. To determine Eli’s happiness requires his mother’s instincts, because he is a wheelchair user who needs round-the-clock care.

Happiness by Marilia SamperQuite where the characters live is somewhat immaterial, aside from them all being in the same building on the outskirts of a major city. Well, we don’t even know it’s a major city, and perhaps it isn’t, given that from the top of the hill near Julia’s flat it’s possible to see (more or less) the whole city, and even further beyond, as far as the ocean. Such details are supplied by Eli – while he can’t verbally communicate, the audience is nonetheless treated to his inner thoughts. I had, initially, reservations about this approach: while ‘anything’ is possible, an actor playing a character in a wheelchair and then getting up from it to address the audience wasn’t going to be something that would go down well with people who would rather disabled characters were played by disabled actors.

Of course, there’s a ‘but’. Giving Eli a voice, literally and figuratively, means the audience knows more with regards to what Eli thinks than even his own mother. It also normalises the idea of someone who is physically unable to dress themselves being sharp-minded and far more aware of the world around them than the likes of Vera (Maria De Lima), an upstairs neighbour, would ever give him credit for. Then there’s Ray (Howard Teale), the chairman of the residents’ association, who is kind and friendly towards Eli, and is the carer for his ill wife whenever he’s not at work.

Had the play’s setting been more specific, for instance, a city in the UK, there might have been questions about whether adult social care provision is adequate. Here, it would appear to be non-existent, with Vera being a regular visitor to Julia’s flat, ‘caring’ for Eli, which for her constitutes making sure he doesn’t starve or fall over rather than engaging with him in a meaningful way. Julia, knowing it has been so long since she was able to get Eli out of the building for some fresh air that she can’t precisely remember the last time it happened, sets about researching wheelchair ramps to overcome the problem of nine steps that separate Julia and Eli’s flat from the building’s entrance.

Being a woman of modest means, it’s a relentless effort to fill in forms, apply for grants, consider loan options, obtain building work quotes, and without a computer at home, navigating automated telephone systems with miscellaneous options before being placed in a generic queue for an unspecified period of time in any event. That there are stair-climbing wheelchairs on the market these days that wouldn’t involve structural alterations to the apartment block and would be less of a financial hit is beside the point. The show puts forward different perspectives, with Pantry voicing multiple residents, and all the lower socio-economic context provided at the top of the show suddenly has a strategic purpose: it’s all very well requesting or even demanding others chip in, but what if they cannot afford to do so, irrespective of their willingness?

The play presents a relatively easy answer, but then brings the narrative back to earth – for everyone to live happily ever after is a nice thought, but it’s not the stark reality of real life. The storyline sometimes raises more questions than answers, though it plays out in an astonishingly compelling way, given that this is a show partly about building regulations. The ninety minutes flew by in this edgy and intense production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The edge of a city. A working-class street with old and cheap houses, where Julia lives with her son, Eli has a disability and has to use a wheelchair. Eli is 20 years old and he can’t speak, he can’t walk. He can’t do anything by himself. He spent the days in a wheelchair. He has grown up and Julia’s hernia doesn’t let her carry him in her arms (as she used to do) down the stairs. So, he doesn’t leave the flat. Julia is determined to solve this situation by installing a ramp to push Eli’s wheelchair and take him outside. Such a simple task can be an impossible undertaking when all conditions are unfavorable and, above all, if its completion depends on the goodwill and kindness of others.

by Marilia Samper
Translated by Steven Capsuto
Directed by Paula Paz

7-19 NOV 2022

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1 thought on “Happiness by Marilia Samper – Cervantes Theatre”

  1. Elizabeth Clement

    Fantastic! Thought provoking and emotional, one gets totally lost in the unfolding drama.

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