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Murray Watts’ play “Happiness,” which is presently established at Hawke and Hunter, reaches for a pair of comfy old stereotypes – the naive peaceable husband and his henpecking wife – and it observes them at home together over the course of an evening of fireworks. If we are waiting to hear about those extramarital affairs and the true feelings that they have always kept from each other, these revelations appear as expected. We are supposed to grieve with this couple as they have been ruined by the recession, although they live in a “tower” and drink a bottle of wine every night. You are not buying this, I can tell. So what has this play got going for it?

At bottom, “Happiness” narrates the world’s oldest story of the great battle between good and evil, but it rather radically tells this story from a position of complete neutrality. The husband Laurie (Simon Yadoo) waves the flag for hope. Even though virtually bankrupted, he still faces the world with optimism and trust in both his own resources and the kindness of others. His wife Shelley (Lucia McAnespie), on the other hand, champions despair. Although not unkind, she is cynical at heart, repeatedly tearing down any hope of happiness. They appear rather like God and the Devil partaking in a largely friendly wager over the prospects for humanity, and at the end of the play, the particular human in whom Laurie had faith shows his colours for the Devil.

But perhaps they are a happy old couple and at some level they are both entirely satisfied with each other. It is merely on a philosophical plane that there is so much at stake. Shelley lurches from cheerful cynicism to desperate terror – she is a whole hungry zoo full of different and conflicting animal emotions – but McAnespie manages to not only bring this character under control and render her plausible, but to make her glow. She is physically captivating too, although when she is ranting away, her dishevelled hair and painted grin make her look uncannily like Heath Ledger’s Joker in his nurse disguise.

Yadoo has a little less joy with the husband. Laurie reasons listlessly against Shelley’s cynicism, surely knowing that he will never convince her, but this is only laziness as Shelley herself senses the manic/melancholy unreality of her psyche and its emotional hullabaloo. This awareness always gives her outpourings a tinny clockwork quality, even when she appears to be speaking truth. Yet Laurie’s final revelations do not entirely chime with what we have hitherto observed of his character. In real life, one such as he would be more guarded and in control – not because it is shameful to express emotion, as he claims, but because it is simply natural to grow responsible when your partner is in meltdown. Towards the end of the play, I was niggled by reservations about his performance, but he nevertheless delivers a final scene of great power.

“Happiness” transforms what promises to be a dreary dinner-party bust up into a work of surprising and sustained fascination. It is unfortunate that Tychy discovered the play so late in the Fringe, for it is one of three that Watts has brought to Edinburgh. Time is against me, but I will try to catch at least one of the other two before the week is out.

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