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Hope Has a Happy Meal (NHB Modern Plays)

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I really like the way that Fowler parodies the banal pronouncements of those in power, and his evident sympathy for the marginalized and the needy. More surprising moments could have been created had there been more time, space and dramaturgy for Fowler to utilise his clearly vivid imagination. There are some fantastical moments, including a bizarre gameshow hosted by a makeshift Ronald McDonald which doesn’t add anything, and some soap opera drama cliches are thrown into the plot (think Chekhov’s gun) which don’t feel fully earned. On their way to find the Strawberry Fields commune of Hope’s youth, they are joined by redundant forest ranger Ali, but things soon get very complicated.

This is a shame because it’s an intriguing conceit, and could have been developed further, but there are too many ideas packed into this play that don’t get fully realised, and Hope’s journey to find her son understandably takes precedence because it is a human – and relatable – story.When protagonist Hope lands at Nike International Airport after 24 years abroad, she knows everything has changed. It's an opening that works by holding its nerve, building up the humour by leaving us not knowing where it’s going.

With some well-judged cameo characters also providing heightened jabs at the slick emptiness of the service industry, played by the cast in sometimes triple duty (including a particularly versatile Felix Scott), Fowler’s playfully dark humour hits the spot. The second half is a skip through the months living together in the commune, dealing with humorous practicalities of keeping a hostage in the basement (someone’s got to empty the bucket), and watching Hope rekindle her frosty sisterly relationship with Lor. Not only has he heard it before, he says it’s less funny because she’s changed one of the names to hers. Felix Scott gives a panoply of excellent performances, from a brutal cop to a hopeless ex-husband, and there is enough vim and vigour to the production that when Isla announces that “this is, like, the best adventure ever! Naomi Dawson’s set design uses height to separate spaces and it is incredibly effective, providing flexible building blocks for their creative collaborators to play with.Yet despite the infiltration of the market into everything and everywhere, Fowler argues that hope and happiness is still possible (just look at the title, which gets an ironic twist in the play’s ending). That’s because there are so many ideas and commentary woven into each scene and character, some of which contradict each other, that none shines stronger than any other.

There is also something very allusive in his writing: the mention of Strawberry Fields commune brings to mind the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” when, some time later, it becomes evident that we are dealing with a situation that could be described as “all the lonely people, where do they all come from? This comes into play when a guilt-stricken Hope dreams about an uncannily familiar red, white and yellow clown – complete with hilariously bleeped out name – aggressively judging her failings. In the Upstairs studio space, we arrive in the People’s Republic of Koka Kola, formerly the UK, a hilariously lurid police state where freedoms are acutely curtailed and consumer capitalism is totally dominant.Photograph: Helen Murray View image in fullscreen Cheerfully fluorescent unease … Laura Checkley in Hope Has a Happy Meal. Lor is angry with Hope because she feels betrayed and abandoned when Hope left — and 24 years is a long time to wait for reconciliation. Ali and Isla fall for each other and along the way the threesome find themselves unwittingly kidnapping Wayne – it turns out none have the stomach for cold blooded murder. Hope begins atop the set, before descending into the moral, ethical and relationship depths of chaos on the ground level, finally ascending as she completes her journey. Bread Ahead may be most famous for scrumptious, and incredibly Instagram friendly, doughnuts, but also has a incredible variety of top notch bread and pastries on offer.

That Hope goes on such a visually transformative personal journey in the space of an hour and forty minutes is credit to Checkley’s physical theatre talents, her body absorbing the tension in each scene as we build to the play’s violent crescendo.

Along the way, Wizard of Oz style, they meet a scarecrow – sorry – forestry worker (Ali) who is depressed at losing their job when it’s revealed Facebook Forest will be cut down and replaced by flats. Nevertheless, Fowler never loses his finely tuned sense of humour, leavening out the more overwrought moments with a welcome wryness. The carnival inspired set is designed by Naomi Dawson and attempts to encapsulate the madness of the world, but doesn’t quite pull it off because the text doesn’t delve deeply enough into the metaphor of capitalism as a circus.

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