As a coffee lover, I’ve always been slightly bemused by the idea that a cup of tea can improve almost any situation. In Annie McKenzie’s one-woman show, Happiness Is A Cup Of Tea, she explores grief and memory, with tea representing a much needed source of comfort.
We learn that Fiona’s mother has died, and we’re introduced to her as she’s returning home for the funeral. She is expected to write the eulogy, but she’s struggling to find the words, to remember the ‘right’ sort of memories, those that will show her mother in the best light. As she sits on the cliffs near her family home, she remembers how she was treated as a child when her father died, and examines the rifts that have since developed in the family.
The venue itself is perfect for this play – an eerie tunnel, mould patches blooming white on the damp brick walls. It sits perfectly with the stormy soundscape, evoking the crags and cliffs that the character has climbed, while the fans, immersing us in the cliff’s gusting winds, are a lovely touch. McKenzie’s costume – a yellow hiking jacket, navy woollen hat and some matching wellies – suggest a traveller, maybe someone who is lost or looking for something. The set is equally simple, just a bench and a telephone box (which wobbles precariously every time the door is opened). The purpose of the ringing phone is never made clear, however: does it represent all the missed connections that have lead to the separation in the family? Does it hint at the emptiness that fills you once you can no longer speak to a loved one, when they’re too far away for even the weakest of phone signals?
McKenzie, who also wrote the play, is an engaging performer, endearingly portraying the character’s childlike innocence. Her physicality, especially when setting up camp for a nice, warm cup of tea and some chocolate, is almost clown-like. What lets this piece down, unfortunately, is the script. Described as “part autobiography, part character piece”, there’s almost a juvenile feel to it, which is only reinforced by all the childhood reminiscences. There are some poetic moments, about a selkie woman in love with a fisherman, and about how we’re all made of stardust and will all return to the sea, but these pseudo-profound moments jar with the realistic tone of the rest. There just doesn’t seem to be any sort of universal message, or theme, that the audience can connect with. There’s lots of discussion about the fear of death, but it lacks any conclusion. Is the play suggesting that memory is unreliable? That families are complicated? That death is scary because we don’t talk about it enough?
The 50 minute play ends rather abruptly, with a story about a man who is planning to die by suicide, but changes his mind after a nice chat with Fiona’s mother. It’s an interesting tale, told with warmth, but it feels disconnected from the rest of the piece. Ultimately, I found Happiness Is A Cup Of Tea felt unfinished, a storytelling show without enough of a story. But maybe that’s just because I prefer coffee.
Happiness Is A Cup Of Tea will be continuing its run at Vault Festival until 28th February at 18:15 every day. You can book your tickets from 0871 220 0260 or http://www.vaultfestival.com
CAST AND CREW
Actor/Writer: Annie McKenzie
Director: Michael Tonkin-Jones
Photographer: Melanie Smith