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Happy Birthday Wanda June at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Angel, Islington

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on Sunday, 04 November 2012
Happy Birthday Wanda June

Until November 24th

Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London, EC1V 4NJ 

Web site, Telephone 0844 412 4307

4 stars

Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007 was one of the most successful and critically esteemed of the post-World War II generation of American writers, with novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle making his reputation as an unusual, ironic, experimental voice who used his usually satirical science fiction to explore America’s politics, identity and ideology, and who established the anti-hero and outsider as crucial American figures.

Happy Birthday Wanda June (originally published as Penelope in 1960 and then later revised with the new title in 1970, filmed in 1971), rewrites into modern American society the famous story of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and his wife Penelope, besieged by suitors who believe her husband dead. However, Happy Birthday Wanda June does so to create a very different, anti-heroic effect that is bitter and satirical, rather than celebratory and glorious.  In that sense, it is an ironic swipe at American masculinity, the glories of heroism and the American military machine which Vonnegut opposed so strongly during the Vietnam war and which was in full swing when he revised this play. As a character announces at the beginning of the play: ‘[T]his is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don't.’  

Full of absurdity, black humour, strange cultural relativism, while it isn’t fully successful as a play and  in particular the second half seems to show Vonnegut had difficulty in deciding how it should/ could end,  there is nonetheless much to enjoy in what is much more than just a curio from a great writer.  Director Ant Stones has done some very intelligent revising of the play, which cuts about thirty unnecessary minutes from the running time, and the production as a whole is deftly and intelligently directed with plenty of over-the-top razzmatazz and some rather inspired casting decisions.

It is played with real verve and style by an accomplished cast and furthermore makes the most of the absurd qualities of the text and its peculiar and individualistic tone and bizarre, absurdist humour (Nazi war criminals and dead little girls playing shuffleboard in Heaven). There is much to enjoy here in what is the first revival that the play has had since 1977 at the Bush, so this may really be the chance of a lifetime if you are interested in Vonnegut, or indeed American plays of that period which are so seldom performed in Britain.


Fig. 1. Herb Shuttle (played by Emma-Jane Martin) and Dr Norbert Woodly (played by Katy Slater discuss the mysterious birthday cake of the title. Credit: Susan Smart

Alix Dunmore plays a superbly quirky, often bemused, but surprisingly feisty Penelope who has taken an MA during the eight odd years ( it was ten in the original Odyssey), while husband Harold Ryan has been missing presumed dead, after going on an expedition with his best friend Looseleaf Harper to find diamonds in the Amazonian jungle.

She and their single child Paul, who still loves and admires his father as much as Telemachus did, are living in their old apartment. Meg Witts has done an excellent job with the set, which shows the Hemingway-like cult of the masculine ‘primitive’ (Harold has been a bull-fighter and fought in the Spanish civil war, as well as a being a hero of World War II, which all helps to recall Hemingway’s obsessions), that Harold has created in his urban apartment; with its jungle animal roaring doorbells and rows of animal heads and African sculpture, it is an ironic take on Harold’s ambitions and fantasies.

Her two suitors are Herb Shuttle (played by Emma-Jane Martin), a vacuum cleaner salesman who hero–worships her lost husband and Dr Norbert Woodly (played by Katy Slater, a 1960’s style hippy who believes in pacifism and an end to the glorification of war and the deification of masculine conflict. In an inspired choice both suitors are played by actresses which suggests how the returning Harold sees them as simply not masculine enough to be men. Fiona Drummond’s Paul Ryan is yet another dimension of the problem that Harold finds and will lead him to lament that American has become decadent in the years he has been way and even his own son is being emasculated by the prevailing spirit of pacifism.

He and his companion the test pilot and flying ace, Looseleaf Harper were trapped by ‘a blue soup; with narcotic powers fed to him by a South American tribe that deprived him of his will to escape (paralleling the Calypso scenario in the Odyssey). Setting the play in America’s South helps make it work as this is the repository of America’s good ole’ boy  Republican values.

Happy Birthday Wanda June-

Katy Slater as Dr Norbert Woodly, Fiona Drummnd as Paul Ryan, Marcus Powell as Looseleaf Harper, Vincent Jerome as Harold Ryan, Alix Dunmore as Penelope Ryan and Emma-Jane Martin as Herb Shuttle  Photo Credit: Susan Smart

Vincent Jerome as Harold Ryan certainly embodies a fantasy of American macho values, an element of menace and suppressed violence trailing him as he swaggers around the territory of his apartment into a series of mishaps and confrontations gone awry. But he is also  child-like, feeling out of place in a changed world where he can’t settle his scores with the suitors by hand-to-hand combat and Jerome does an excellent job in showing Ryan’s final recognition of this new world.

Marcus Powell is an excellent Looseleaf Harper, and as well as a helicopter pilot, was also the man who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki and is a strange concoction of southern gentleman, innocent abroad and conscience –stricken former soldier. The decision to cast two actors of colour striekes me as highly appropriate, not for the period, but for today where American has dealt with its difficult civil rights past by admitting in African-Americans as long as they serve as guardians of its macho, military values ( think of George Bush’s admiration of Colin Powell).

 In an attempt to introduce moral relativism to the play, Vonnegut has several scenes in heaven where charcters who are dead directly address the audience. Alix Dunmore’s stereotyped Nazi Major Siegfried von Konigswald, the Beast of Yugoslavia, who was assassinated by the daring Harold Ryan, now leads Ryan’s fan-club as he tells us and as we discover on our return after the interval, Siegfried and everyone else in heaven spends their time playing celestial shuffle-board: Jesus Christ wears a blue jacket with “Pontius Pilate Athletic Club” displayed on the back.


Fig. 3. Alix Dunmore as Penelope Ryan threatnes to shoot her bemused husband,Harold Ryan, played by Vincent Jerome. Fiona Drummnd as Paul Ryan looks on.
Photo Credit: Susan Smart

 In the end, everything will go wrong for Harold Ryan, he will be deserted by his companion Looseleaf and defeated in verbal sparring by Dr Norbert Woodly, a man he has too much contempt for to despise. The play ends with a tragi-comic missed not and is as unresolved in tone at the end as it is throughout the second half. I wasn’t even sure if Vonnegit still wanted us to dislike Harold Ryan. Our sympathies are perhaps too directed to Jerome’s handsome Harold Ryan and despite his violence we don’t see him doing anything morally wrong. He is too easily bested by his wife Penelope who refuses him access to the marital bed ( unlike in Homer’s poem). Indeed his heroism is attested to by many of those we see in heaven,

Vonnegut’s satirical lampoon has a cutting edge typical of 1960s counter-culture, but we can perhaps see its legacy better in such cartoons as American Dad!. However much we laugh at Stan’s  macho, self-proclaimed patriotism and neoconservative republican values, we are also aware that these aren’t as much out of fashion as the 1960’s counter-culture would have hoped. Perhaps in the end that is the real irony of Vonnegut's fascinating play.
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