Written and performed by Annie McKenzie and directed by Michael Tonkin-Jones
Judging a book by its cover, or a play by its name, is a risky thing. Happiness is a Cup of Tea, a one-woman play written and performed by Annie McKenzie is not a whimsical look at the little things in life, but centred around central character Beth’s return home to Beachyhead to write her mother’s eulogy.
Running at this year’s Vault Festival, the bare walls of the cold tunnels make for an ideal setting on which to place the stark stage on which only a phonebox, lone bench and windy blows are set. At times the pathetic fallacy weights down heavy, but let’s not forget that this is Beachyhead, the UK’s most notorious suicide spot.
The conversational monologue is immediately identifiable. At least for me, someone who also as a child would creep into my parents’ bedroom to check their breathing and make sure they were still alive and would worry about death but not know what I was worrying about. We know that the ‘d’ word happens, indeed to all of us, but there’s a pervasive cultural fear of talking about it. It’s a brave topic to tackle, and the family stories, the moments where Fiona smells her hands to remember the scent of oranges on her mother’s or munches on a Kit Kat to try to find herself back in the space of her childhood are the highlights. However, the interludes of poetry and references to being ‘particles of stars returning to burn in the aftermath’ jar with the deeply intimate scene created and feel too try hard.
It’s a deep and dense subject to explore, and one where the personal story sometimes feels loose – we know she lost her father at a young age, but when and how is never explained; we know she’s been away, but again why and where remains a mystery. As a meditation on what happens when you can no longer hear the laughter of a loved one, or how ‘life goes on, even when it doesn’t’ Happiness is A Cup of Tea is a brave piece of work. However, it meanders a little too much, and whilst the narrative does reflect the fact that memories are unreliable and the past filled with merging dreams and realities, it does feel a little unsatisfying. Endearing and charming, McKenzie’s youthful face captures the audience, but her performance does also feel a little childlike.
McKenzie is hoping to take the hour long piece to Edinburgh Festival later this year, and with a little more honing and direction it could do very well. The content is there, the emotion available (it is part-autobiography) but currently the structure feels more to serve the performer than the audience. Leave it to brew a little longer however, and things could be very different.