REVIEW: I Want To Be Happy (Herald Theatre)

Review by Ben Shand-Clennell

I Want To Be Happy is a deeply human and often surreal exploration of love, loss, and the individuality of happiness.

The play follows Binka, a guinea pig in a testing facility, who is wonderfully realised and commandingly portrayed by Jennifer Ludlam. Paul is the laboratory technician assigned to look after Binka, whose portrayal is a masterclass in subtlety by Joel Tobeck. Milo Cawthorne also lends his considerable skills in physicality, to great success. The performers do an amazing job of swapping, and vacillating between, different characteristics. The story is captivating, and the dialogue is punchy. Carl Bland has created a rich world, filled with nuanced characters and deeply human experiences. Ben Crowder’s direction allows the script to flourish as motifs and recurring themes are well-utilised throughout. 

The two standout, repeated elements within the play are the themes of mimesis and miscommunication. These provide great dramatic cohesion to the play, as a whole. The set is chrome-plated, and so acts like a mirror. There is a mirroring of dialogue, and desires between the characters. Most impressive, however, is the mirroring of the macro and the micro. The play splits action between the scale of a guinea pig, and the scale of a human. There are many instances of objects transcending these scales, and either becoming huge or miniscule. Not only is this visually spectacular, but it also helps demonstrate the gulf in understanding between the two characters. This lack of understanding is also present in the dialogue. The characters are often talking at cross purposes, conversing without ever expecting comprehension. It is an interesting restriction to place on dialogue, and creates a compelling situation for the audience, who can understand both characters. More than all else, the characters are unified by their desire to be happy, and to do anything to reach their goals.

As alluded to earlier, the set is intricate and extremely inventive. The human-sized guinea pig cage is particularly imposing. It is an elaborately designed show and the overall effect is a successful blending of ‘‘heightened’ and ‘realistic’ features. It cannot be overstated how stunning and effective the scaling of items is. Puppetry is also used very impressively to warp the perspective of size. Between these many elements it is a technically complex show.  

The play is a visually striking and well-executed piece. The constituent pieces are creatively coherent and the subject matter thought-provoking. It is a hard ask to portray guinea pigs and humans on the same stage, and to delve into the minutia of animal testing. However, both Bland’s script and the cast rise admirably to the challenge, and the audience is left pondering deeper questions regarding individual versus universal happiness. 

I Want To Be Happy plays at the Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, 18th August to the 2nd September, 2023 

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