Review by Bella Wellstead
It’s the mid-2000s. Neopets-obsessed Bette and music-lover Al stumble across one another on the online multiplayer Club Penguin Racing. The teenagers begin a friendship. They use the relative anonymity afforded them by MSN messenger as a safe space in which to explore their identities and share concealed parts of themselves. As the spectre of an in-person meeting looms over them, Bette and Al must face their insecurities and anxieties. Do they trust one another enough to meet at Leeds Festival, and bare their truths in the pit at Patrick Wolf?
Written by Tabby Lamb and directed by Jamie Fletcher, Happy Meal is a story of youth in the early years of social media. The toils of teenagedom – navigating identity, forming relationships, and finding hope – are amplified by a trans perspective that centres growth and empowerment.
Tommi Bryson’s Bette is a ‘bad ass biatch’. Her garish self-assuredness is balanced carefully alongside an unspoken vulnerability. Bryson’s ‘tude sends the message that this girl is not to be messed with. A message that – while playful – rings particularly true for a young trans woman discovering herself in an offline world that is hostile to people like her. When Al introduces Bette to the vocabulary he uses for his own trans identity, she is compelled to confront the divergence between who she is and how she is perceived. Bryson approaches this confrontation with an apprehensive self-love, giving Bette the agency to follow her passions and take up space in the world.
Sam Crerar’s Al is earnest, audacious, and resolute. He is introduced to us as timid – an old soul who has had little prior contact with the online world that Bette calls her home. However, he quickly identifies Bette as a friend who he can trust. He reveals not only his trans identity to her, but also his jocular and enthusiastic nature. Lounging on his windowsill, Al spouts an alphabetised list of favourite bands and slyly slips innuendo into conversation. This transformation demonstrates the comfort and safety Al finds in Bette. One yearns for their closeness to endure and act as a protection for them both. It is a pleasure to see this character come into himself, transforming from an anxious but determined teenager into a bold and uncompromising young adult.
Set designer Ben Stones and video designer Daniel Denton work together masterfully. They create a bubble-gum-hued liminal space that denotes the online world. Two large, translucent boxes sit alongside one another in the centre of the stage. Atop them, handles arch – mimicking those which crest the boxes of the titular Happy Meal. Windows shaped like thought bubbles are cut into the boxes’ front walls. It is through these that Bette and Al narrate their messages to one another. Onto these boxes, Denton projects a collection of homepages and chat boxes – complete with frantic, youthful typing and the flash of cartoon currency.
As Bette and Al grow up and the 21st-century flutters on, the projections transition from a metallic Myspace blue to the hazy purple of an Instagram feed. Every projection is accompanied by a curt digital beep or twinkle, curtesy of sound designer Eliyana Evans. Additionally, each social media site has a complementary hand gesture, performed by the actors to signal logging on. Together, the designers effectively emulate the personal, online space as it is experienced in the characters’ imaginations and brought into their real lives.
Happy Meal is a heartwarming show – wittily written, thoughtfully performed, and encased in the playful aesthetic of the online imagination. It heavily references British Millennial adolescence, appealing to the nostalgia of those whose coming of age was soundtracked by Girls Aloud. One would absolutely be remiss not to catch this bite-sized delight before it closes on January 22.