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Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Old Red Lion Theatre

Kurt Vonnegut
Directed by Ant Stones

Pros: A very clever script full of wit and humour, poignant moments and surrealism. The cast are versatile – I really liked the use of female actors playing male roles – and the comic timing is really good.

Cons: The interpretation of a central character lacks charisma which saps the energy during an important scene in the second act. At times the dialogue was a little stiff.

Our Verdict: This is a really enjoyable production of Vonnegut’s one and only play.

Courtesy of the Old Red Lion Theatre

“This is a simple minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don’t”. This opening line is delivered in a southern American accent by Penelope, a housewife whose husband, the hero game hunter and diamond trader Harold Ryan, has been missing after a plane crash eight years earlier. We learn that she has a twelve year old son, Paul, a soft-hearted boy who worships his father’s memory. Penelope is dating two very different men in her husband’s absence, the pacifist doctor Woodley, and the falsely machismo vacuum cleaner salesman, Shuttle. The drama unfolds on Ryan’s birthday, when he returns home with his pilot friend, Looseleaf, whose claim to fame is that he dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. It’s the 1960s and the winds of change are blowing through Penelope’s life – then her husband returns to drag her unwillingly back to his ‘obsolete’ world.

The play was written in the 1960s and the clear theme is the juxtaposition of the macho old school men, who love war and killing, against the new era of peace loving, bead wearing pacifists. Ryan and Looseleaf represent the alpha males and the contrast is highlighted by the casting of women in the other male roles. This is really clever, and I liked the way in which Shuttle is hankering to be the ballsy hero whilst Woodley challenges the premise of violence and the dominance of masculinity. Paul represents the confused future – the reality of his father does not measure up to the ideal, and his other male role models fall short of his idea of manliness.

The drama is punctuated by scenes from heaven where we meet ten year-old Wanda June, who supports the notion that killing is a good thing because heaven is perfect and so getting there sooner rather than later is preferable. We also meet one of Ryan’s victims, ‘the Beast of Yugoslavia’, and one of his previous wives, who provide further insight into the man he is. There is some lovely improvisation during the interval, when the Beast and Wanda June play shuffleboard and chat with the audience in character. These scenes provide humourous and light-hearted commentary on death. It is surprising to learn that this is Vonnegut’s only play as the script is wonderfully clever.

The cast are commendable in their presentation and demonstrate real versatility; females play male roles and three of the actors also double up and play two characters each. Emma-Jane Martin plays both Shuttle and Wanda June with gentle good humour – she really draws out the meaning in these supporting roles which enhances the effectiveness of the plot. Alix Dunmore plays both Penelope and ‘The Beast of Yugoslavia’ with wonderful comic timing. Marcus Powell is brilliant as Looseleaf, the most credible of all the characters; his strength of identity was impeccable. Vincent Gerome as Harold Ryan leaves us in no doubt about his masculinity, his stage presence is overwhelmingly testosterone fuelled! I wasn’t as sold on Katy Slater’s interpretation of Woodley – in bringing new age pacifist ideals to the discussion she is too gentle, too quiet and reluctant and her character loses impact and lacks sincerity as a result. Slater is good in her role as Ryan’s dead alcoholic ex-wife though, so I think it’s the interpretation that is amiss and not the talent. Finally, Fiona Drummond gives a good account of the twelve year-old Paul.

This play has a lot going for it – it has strong themes delivered with bags of humour, surreal scenes and moments of genuine poignancy. However, there are times when the dialogue becomes a bit wooden, which undermines the consistency of the performance. There is a long dialogue between Woodley and Ryan in the second act which I felt let the play down a little. Considering the importance of the conversation I felt the drama waned and felt a little too staged at this point – it lacked energy and conviction. That being said, this is a really enjoyable production of a very clever play, so we certainly recommend it.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Happy Birthday,Wanda June runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 24th November 2012.
Box Office: 0844 412 4307 or book online at http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/happy-birthday-wanda-june.htm

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  1. Hi guys, thank you for a great review – I was just wondering if you could correct an error in the article – the actress playing Shuttle and Wanda June is called Emma-Jane Martin, not Emma-Jane Ryan. I know this for a fact, as I am her! Thank you very much.

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