THEATRE REVIEW: Happy Birthday Without You - Tricycle Theatre

Photo by Luke Pajak

Written and performed by Sonia Jalaly, one-woman comedy Happy Birthday Without You introduces us to the world of Violet Fox, a performance artiste with a passionate and somewhat misguided belief that she has some very important things to say.
In her own words: ‘I put my soul on stage every night for strangers. In my eyes that makes me a hero.’

Through a mash-up of spoken word, cabaret, satire and visual comedy, Violet takes the audience on a journey through the various disastrous birthdays of her life, weaving in anecdotes about her complex and destructive relationship with her mother. 

As Violet, Sonia Jalaly is highly expressive, watchable, and is a natural comic performer. Expertly sending up Violet’s astronomical opinion of herself, Jalaly appears just the opposite, gleefully unafraid to take risks and interact with the audience – often looking quite silly in the process. We’ve all encountered exactly the sort of ‘troubled artist’ Violet thinks she is, especially in the spoken word world, so it is undeniably refreshing to see this satirised, particularly in such a unique and interesting way and by a talented performer in her own right.

Visual comedy is something that can often be quite difficult for an audience to gel with, and there seemed to be a real mixture of reactions on the night I saw the show. Particular highlights, however, included a solitary game of musical chairs involving post-it notes and lipstick, different renditions of ‘Happy Birthday to you’ in the style of various Broadway dames (Jalaly has one hell of a voice), and a mimed Edith Piaf impression. A healthy smattering of self-aware, satirical theatre jokes works well too - ‘Ooh look the lights have come on and everything – it’s just so immersive’. There’s also a really brilliant joke about some pornographic bunting towards the end which frankly is worth the ticket price alone.
Photo by Luke Pajak

The actual plot of the piece, whilst fragmented and non-chronological, is held together remarkably well. You suspect that in the hands of a lesser performer, perhaps one closer to Violet than Sonia, it would not be anywhere near as well constructed. Interestingly though, the darker elements of the hour and ten minute production are some of the most effective, and despite the satire you so find yourself wanting to see them taken further, especially when Violet then breaks the tension with a characteristic ‘so…yeah’. It’s really quite clever to get an unexpected laugh from somewhere like that and Ruby Thompson’s direction really shines in such moments. I couldn’t help but wish the darker moments were taken further, but then pulling the rug out from under the audience when the satire crashes sharply back in.

It’s main and really only weakness as a piece, and certainly one often felt by the genre as a whole, is that it’s easy to feel on the edge of the humour rather than fully immersed in it. It can often feel as if there’s a huge-in joke that you misheard the punchline of or just didn’t quite get. When you do get it, you find yourself laughing out loud, but the parts which don’t quite land are a little alienating. 

Essentially, when this show works, it really works. 

For me, there were just a few too many gaps between the big laughs. But if cabaret, visual comedy, spoken word, or anything between is your bag, this is definitely a performance worth seeing if you can catch it.

Jen

★★★

@jenniferklarge

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