No, Happy Days isn't the stage musical version of the 70s TV series that is now touring the UK, but Samuel Beckett's bleak, enduringly brilliant virtual monologue for an actress that was first premiered in 1961 in New York and a year later at London's Royal Court.
Fifty years on, its bold theatrical metaphor on the futility of human existence and the pain (and sometimes pleasures) of just getting through the day remains as audacious and theatrically alluring as ever. It's distilled in the purest image possible: a woman buried up to her waist in sand for the first act, chattering away as her mostly silent husband occupies an adjoining piece of wasteland, and occasionally diving into the voluminous handbag beside her to fish out items to help pass the time with. "There is of course the bag. Could I enumerate its contents?" she asks herself rhetorically. And replies, "No..Could I, if some kind person were to come along and ask, What all have you got in that big black bag, Winnie? Give an exhaustive answer? No. The depths in particular, who knows what treasures. What comforts."
And the same can be said of the play - it is impossible to enumerate its contents, and especially its depths. Yet there is a cold, piercing sort of comfort in it, too; we're all hurtling towards oblivion together, and Winnie has found a coping mechanism that enables her to do so. We all must.
By the even darker second act, she's now embedded up to her neck in the sand, but still surviving - just. It's an absolute tour-de-force role for an actress to play, and Juliet Stevenson seizes it with grit, grace and an indomitable fighting spirit. "Another heavenly day!", she exclaims in her opening words. And the words will come back in haunting refrains.
It's a wonderful play for the liberating poetry of its speech, and the depth of feeling of the predicament it describes. The Young Vic's haunting new production, staged against a severe craggy rock face that makes Winnie's talking head, embedded in rock and looking like it's an animated part of Mount Rushmore, reaffirms a modernist theatrical masterpiece that is as harrowing as it is completely gripping.
"Stevenson and her director Natalie Abrahami make every word count, and Vicki Mortimer’s extraordinary design gives this small-scale play a truly epic quality."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"Stevenson's magnetic performance is also reinforced by the lunar strangeness of the set, by Paule Constable's atmospheric lighting and the nerve-jangling intensity of Tom Gibbons's sound."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"While Stevenson is not as brittle or playful as others who have taken it on, her performance is deeply intelligent and skilful."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard