Happiness Is a Cup of Tea Review

Theatre N16 27 November – 1 December.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Wow. Just wow.

Annie McKenzie has created a wonderfully honest and heart wrenching piece of theatre about coping with grief.

On a clifftop at Beachyhead, Fiona (McKenzie) struggles to come to terms with the sudden death of her mother, armed with a biscuit tin and a flask of tea. The stages of grief are all present in this seemingly rambling monologue, expertly written to slowly reveal the true character of both Fiona’s mother, and their relationship. The initial guilt that she didn’t realise her mother had cancer, and the anger at her older sister about leaving the news via voicemail is portrayed with affecting rawness by McKenzie – all tears, snot and spit. The pain and confusion on her face are palpable. Fiona’s frustration about her mother always wanting to protect her keeps surfacing, with lots of physical hints to explain why. McKenzie’s sensitively judged gestures, pauses and movements, and repeated pleas for things lining up and being put in order subtly highlight the character’s spectrum disorder and her family’s treatment of her without laying things on too thickly.

Perhaps inspired by The Curious Incident, loud storm noise and dim light accompany Fiona’s darkest moments, and as she calms herself the light brightens and noises abate. This sort of thing usually annoys me, but it fitted perfectly with the feel of this play. Interspersed with Fiona’s emotional struggle is the tale of the skeleton woman – where Fiona’s language becomes melodic and more of a traditional storyteller. Fiona’s musings on mortality and loss are spat out, while her childhood memories trip off her tongue with warmth and innocence – the switch between these moods is handled brilliantly, showing Fiona’s inner turmoil with clarity and empathy.

McKenzie inhabits her character fearlessly, giving a moving, natural and engaging performance. I had to stop myself getting up to give the poor girl a hug.

As Fiona keeps remembering the insignificant, ridiculous details she remembers about her mother, the titles she gives her – “My Mother – The Widow” and “My Mother – The Secret Drinker” – become gentler and more loving, culminating in the story from which the play takes its name. The final, silent gesture that Fiona makes in honour of her mother is both heart-breaking and life affirming. Annie McKenzie is definitely a writer to keep an eye on. She has tapped into a deep well of emotion and produced a piece that makes you laugh, cry, and reminds you not to take your parents for granted. And she’s right, a nice cup of tea is all you need.