Review by Harry Bower
The People’s Republic of Koka Kola is a dystopian capitalist cess pit – a country which used to be a democracy and is now dominated by the most powerful brands representing the most extreme form of capitalism. When protagonist Hope lands at Nike International Airport after 24 years abroad, she knows everything has changed. Disney Quarry, Facebook Forest, and BP Nature Reserve all feature on her surreal, tragic, and redemptive journey via Koka Kola Railways. You will be pleased to know that McDonald’s is referenced about a hundred times, though the Happy Meal toy is never realised.
When leaving, Hope abandoned her newborn son leaving her sister Lor to raise him. Now, Lor’s once thriving commune, not so subtly named ‘Strawberry Fields’, has failed, and its stalwart is suffering from alcohol addiction. Enroute to the sisterly reunion, Hope meets Isla, a waitress with a secret. Isla’s sister was murdered by an abusive partner, and she is harbouring the couple’s child – on the run from relentlessly evil father, Wayne. This is the core centrepiece of the narrative, as Hope and Isla pair up to evade Wayne’s pursuit. 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. 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. 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.
In terms of narrative, there is a lot to unpack here. Writer Tom Fowler has created an eclectic set of well-rounded characters, each with their own dilemma and redemption arc. Each is funny, too – with some standouts (the Christian music loving trucker is superb). And it’s a good job they are funny, because the subject matter is otherwise deceivingly bleak. Despite Hope’s name, her story is tragic until the last as she leaves a streak of selfish destruction in her wake. The narrative poses some interesting questions; do those we hurt stay hurt forever?; if everything sucks, how can we recognise when something is genuine?; is pain and trauma circular?; are the lies we tell ourselves better than the truth? The play does a decent job at attempting to answer some of those questions, where others are left lingering.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show at The Royal Court with a weak cast, and Hope has a Happy Meal is no different. Laura Checkley’s Hope is comfortingly normal pitched against the absurdity of the People’s Republic, and her comic timing charming. 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. The other standout for me is Mary Malone as Isla. She dominates scenes in the most unsuspecting of ways, empathy and sincerity etched across her face. The piece runs out of steam before Isla gets a meaningful conclusion, but to Malone’s credit she handles the final scene perfectly; and made me care more for Isla than any other character.
A nod to Annie May Fletcher is a must for their sound design; it is key to the fast pace of the piece, with transition sound effects aiding jumps forward in time. Not only that, Fletcher managed to feature a baby crying, frequently, without it irritating me; quite the feat! Lighting design by Anna Watson is equally impressive, with LED giving neon vibes and more haze than a Jimi Hendrix concert. 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. Perhaps the most notable example of that is in Lucy Morrison’s direction which is creative, intuitive, and dynamic. 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.
While the narrative is strong and as an audience member I found Hope has a Happy Meal engaging and fun, I did struggle with identifying its key messages. 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. In the end I found it playful but not an effective critique of capitalism, nor a particularly hopeful piece about redemption, nor a strong rejection or message about police brutality or domestic abuse. It’s a little bit all these things, which makes it an entertaining play but not overly provocative. That’s absolutely fine, by the way, but I can’t help feeling that with characters this strong and a story this interesting, it might be a small, missed opportunity. Perhaps its strongest message is about community togetherness and the power of people, though it never doubles down. Nevertheless, I would strongly recommend you buy a ticket and experience it for yourself. At the very least you will have a brilliant couple of hours of theatrical entertainment with clowns, knives, guns, beautifully raw emotional dialogue, great performances, and some exquisite nightclub dancing. What’s not to love about that?
Hope has a Happy Meal plays at The Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs space until Saturday 08 July. For more information and tickets visit: https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/hope-has-a-happy-meal/
Photos by Helen Murray