Happy Days at the Royal Exchange

Maxine Peake wrings a lot out of her face. Which is good news, because for much of Happy Days that’s as much as the audience can see of her. In Samuel Beckett’s testing two-hander, the Royal Exchange’s associate artist is buried waist-deep, and subsequently up to her neck, in metaphor – and more besides.

Happy Days, the most recent collaboration between Maxine Peake and director Sarah Frankcom, is almost perfect in using the theatre’s striking in-the-round set-up. With Peake’s Winnie and husband Willie (David Crellin) stuck in or on a revolving pyramid of scorched earth it’s as if someone has deposited a large termite mound inside a mini Hadron collider. It’s a remarkable thing to come across in any theatre; in the Royal Exchange Naomi Dawson’s set makes perfect sense.

But perhaps more a moat than a mound. There is a sense of isolation provided by a circle of water, with plastic littering the shoreline. Beckett’s absurdist play may function as metaphor for life, love and loneliness, but its protagonists are trapped within a very real pile of dirt.

From here Winnie embarks on what is an almost complete monologue, punctuated only with rare interjections from the apparently-serene Willie. She seems to fear silence; he appears to hate noise. Taken alone, Winnie’s words might amount to little but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

She cleans her teeth, erects a parasol, chides her husband. The juxtaposition of crashing monotony and the surreal situation allows a deep exploration of futility kept at bay by whimsy, habit and buggering on; a cream cracker, underground, on an impossible island.

Peake’s performance is reminiscent of erstwhile situation comedy’s leading ladies. It’s hard to not detect a little of Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge, Barbara Lott; a Sidney Lotterby housewife swallowed up by interminable days filled with mild self-reproach, pointless pleasantries and nervous verbosity.

Despite her predicament Winnie tried to remain upbeat, albeit with ‘sorrow breaking in’. Happy Days is a portrait of stoicism in an age of anxiety; of the power and powerlessness of words.

If the Royal Exchange feels made for Happy Days, the Winnie could have been written for Peake. As a feat of recollection her monologue would be impressive in itself, but Peake manages to imbue Winnie with such rich detail, using every inch of flesh available to bring nuance to her words and gestures. Even as she launches into more platitudes, her fingers worry the straggly grass beneath her.

In the second half only her head is visible, slowly rotating while a small camera displays her visage on screens above the stage, Willie apparently gone. Peake uses every muscle on her face to convey the growing panic, her stiff upper lip only occasionally glanced. Her voice grows more staccato, shrill, entreating. In the end the audience is offered a choice as to how they view the many dualities Beckett serves up, but it leaves a troubling afterimage.

If Happy Days is a test of the audience’s mettle it must be gruelling indeed for Peake, who takes the audience’s fulsome applause while still encased in the mound, moving only to dab at her brow, having been assailed by blinding lights and deafening bells while encased in theatre’s most famous hillock.

She looked to breathe a sigh of relief, exhaustion, satisfaction, perhaps elation. In its own way the audience might have joined in.

• Originally written for WhatsOnStage.

Bryan Ferry: The Right Side Of Rumpled

Originally written for GetIntoThis

He may not quite have the shape-shifting capabilities of one of his late contemporaries, but Bryan Ferry has enjoyed quite the career trajectory. The son a Durham miner, Ferry was once at the forefront of avante-garde glam alongside the Bowies and Bolans – but when Roxy Music split for the second time in the early 1980s Ferry transitioned towards sophisti-pop stylings and expensive suits: pop music’s louche aristocrat.

Now an elder statesman of the rock-pop world, Ferry has become the archetype of the upmarket crooner, reeling off covers albums and fashion collections for the discerning muso-about-town. That image is confirmed by a glance at the audience in the Philharmonic, here to savour Ferry’s evocative back catalogue among the art-deco stylings. Few audiences can be as dapper as a Bryan Ferry’s.

If Bowie was a chameleon then Ferry is famously a lounge lizard. The curled lip and the quiff remain, trademarks of a look that has survived largely unchanged for the best part of half a century, are unmistakable. While he is much parodied, Ferry is still suave. He doesn’t break sweat and stays just the right side of rumpled.

If Ferry’s style has changed little, the music evolved significantly from art-glam rock to a studied, heavily produced and sumptuous sophisti-pop in the early 80s. But little changed since the middle of that decade and Ferry gradually relaxed into a warm bath of covers albums and tastefully forgettable coffee-table music; the sort of stuff you might admire but never listen to. Most of Ferry’s output since could soundtrack a noirish late-80s BBC detective drama.

Support tonight comes from former Howling Bells singer Juanita Stein, warming up the crowd with a selection of tunes that could soundtrack a David Lynch film, an impression reinforced by a backdrop of shimmering red curtains. It’s an apt opening for Ferry’s own filmic oeuvre.

But following a rapturously received opening of The Main Thing and Slave To Love the energy saps significantly. There are cherishable rarities, including Windswept, but by the time Ferry turns to his later solo material the Phil’s audience – not in the first flush of youth – are sagging.

However, almost on cue things change tack, with an exodus to the front of the auditorium indicating a switch to earlier Roxy Music material. Popular opinion has it that this is where the quality material in Ferry’s back catalogue resides, and while later albums arguably have more texture it’s the foot-stomping standards that fare better in the live environment.

Although approaching venerable age and status – Ferry is 72 – his trademark physicality, along with his looks, give the impression of a much younger man. He looks scarcely able to believe Re-Make Re-Model is over 45 years old.

One would not think it from the way he approaches the songs in the final half of the set. His voice has faded a little, but like Bowie he wears it well. It adds a little more depth to the ballads and covers and does not detract from the pacier numbers.

Still there is time for the odd detour. In Every Dream Home A Heartache remains electrifyingly creepy. Meanwhile Ferry’s own, definitive, version of Jealous Guy – complete with haunting whistling – and an ethereal rendition of Avalon are brief detours in the latter part of the set that is otherwise merciless in its tempo.

Street Life, Virginia Plain, Do The Strand and Love Is The Drug form an irresistible run-in to round off the gig. Angel Eyes and Same Old Scene – perhaps the hits that straddle the two distinct incarnations of Roxy Music more than any others – are missing, as is Dance Away. But the crowd are not disappointed.

They have come to see Bryan Ferry cast off his snoozy late-era trappings and delve into a rich back catalogue. He look energetic, happy. No lounging tonight – even if Ferry’s stage presence still exudes a certain reptilian sang-froid.