Theatre Review: Happy Birthday Wanda June

Kurt Vonnegut’s play expertly captures comedy and darkness.

“Happy Birthday, Wanda June” is a gripping piece of theatre which has just been extended for another week at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington.  Director Ant Stones brings us a dynamic production of Kurt Vonnegut’s only play which is set in 1960s America where a war hero, Harold Ryan played brilliantly by Vincent Jerome, returns home after 8 years to find that America ain’t what it used to be. Flower power prevails, women are on a feminist kick and the new American man is now more in touch with his feminine side than ever before. The play is based in part on Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II and the story of Odysseus’s homecoming.

Our hero Harold Ryan is thought to be dead and when he turns up back home he finds his wife Penelope (Alix Dunmore) involved in a love triangle with a hippy dippy Doctor Woodly (Katy Slater) and a sleazy salesman Shuttle (Emma Jane Martin).  To his surprise he also finds out that his son Paul (Fiona Drummond) is probably not going to turn out to be the macho man Ryan wants him to be. Oh and there’s also a mysterious birthday cake on the table with the words “Happy Birthday Wanda June”.

The set up was something like a great American sitcom, doorbell and all.  The set design was all orange and brown much like the colour patterns you found in the late 60s and 70s across America.  The walls were adorned with heads of Ryan’s various hunting trophies and all the costumes were an orangey -brownish hue.  

I thought Stones made some pretty bold and clever choices for his casting of Woodly, Shuttle and Paul by giving the roles to three women to play. All the witty discussions on sex politics are more elevated. At one point when Ryan and Shuttle are at each other’s throats, Ryan tells him “You’re hollow, like a woman”. The choice of having women in these roles seemed to underline even more the changes in gender roles which were happening at that time.  I thought the whole cast were on their game and gave some stellar performances.

They completely fooled me with their perfect American accents (darn Englishmen!) and the entire cast were in complete synch with each other.  I absolutely loved Ryan’s dopey army sidekick, Looseleaf, played by Marcus Powell who delivers the play’s most poignant lines about war beautifully “I could have been the father of all those people… just by not dropping the bomb”. Alix Dunmore showed her versatility playing Penelope with superb comedic verve and the “Beast of Yugoslavia”, a sarcastic Nazi who was killed by Harold himself. Her accents were spot on as was her timing

This production kept me completely engaged from the outset and was sad to see it end! The first act seemed to wiz by and I think it was due to the superb pacing.  The second half may be a bit slower, but I personally appreciated how Vonnegut pours his heart out about his true feelings towards war. You would be silly to miss this one!

On at the Old Red Lion in Angel until December 1st. http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk or 0844 412 4307

About Melissa Palleschi

Melissa Palleschi New York actress living in London and trained in Italy, New York and here in London at the Actors Studio. She is also a founding member of the Planktonic Players, who made their London debut at Camden Fringe Festival in 2012.

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