The Happiest Place on Earth
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
Andrea Bungay for HiddenViewz
Two friends find themselves away on someone else’s holiday at the Happiest Place On Earth: Orlando, Florida, but they find their dreams are faced with nightmares. Haunted by the ghost of their pasts, they are left on an unexpected emotional rollercoaster. Their friendship is tested as it’s never been before.
First published on Everything Theatre
The play opens with two friends, Joe and Rich, arriving in Orlando, Florida, on holiday away from gloomy England. While Joe wants to drink his problems away, Rich insists on distracting Joe with everything else Disney World has to offer. Even though it is clear that Joe is deeply bothered by something, the cause of this is not revealed until almost halfway into the play.
The audience is guided through the story by Joe and Rich, with narration from Walt Disney, who is meant to represent Joe’s inner dialogues, as he agonises over their friend Pete’s suicide and reflects upon his own life events. Interestingly, the same actor portrays both Walt Disney and Pete, which is a stark contrast symbolising Joe’s childhood dreams and the realities of adulthood. This could be a representation of picking yourself up from where you have fallen. However, the script by Dan Berridge has some issues with the use of humour by Walt Disney. At times, instead of drawing the audience in further and instigating a deeper emotional response, it feels like the narrator is mocking the seriousness of the topic.
Given that Joe’s problems are not presented upfront, it is a little unclear how the audience should feel toward the character. This is further exacerbated by the actor’s opening performance, which is a blend of confusion, depression, and a general unwillingness to participate in any conversations or activities. However, the rationale behind his behaviour becomes clearer as the play progresses, explaining some of his actions and mental state. This is facilitated through a flashback to a short interaction between Pete and Joe immediately before Pete took his own life.
Rich’s character is interesting. He comes across as a carefree person who wishes to do his best to support Joe during this difficult time, but it is revealed that he has problems of his own. We find out that about eight months before this trip, Rich became obsessed with the gym, lost touch with Joe and was overall unresponsive to even his best friends. This hints that Rich was also going through something in his personal life, but this aspect is quickly dropped and forgotten about. The banter between Rich and Joe feels unnatural and lacks chemistry, which could be a result of them growing apart prior to the holiday. However, this level of distance between the best friends is what I would expect from years of miscommunication, not months.
Mental health is the front and centre theme of this play, exploring the consequences of bottled up emotions, shifting priorities among friends as they navigate through their personal circumstances, and the importance to connect with each other. The play abruptly finishes the story with a happy ending, but does not provide the characters or the audience enough time to process the events to get there. The production tries to cover multiple topics (mental health, suicide, adult responsibilities, childhood dreams etc) within 60 minutes, spreading them too thinly, and could benefit from focusing on the emotional development on a single topic instead.