Entering a space equipped with hospital beds and drip-stands, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in an operating theatre, rather than the kind with lights, action and music. But then Happy Ending is a play about women facing up to life with The Big C; cancer.
Managing it as best you can usually means coping with invasive, uncomfortable and time-consuming therapy, time spent on a hospital bed hooked up to a drip stand. Not the stuff of which musicals are made. Well, there’s a lot less blood than that shed by Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and fewer lives lost than on the barricades manned by students in the Paris revolution of 1870 central to Les Misérables.
This is a meditation on and exploration of how we face up to cancer. There’s a lot of fighting talk at the moment in ads for cancer charities urging us to take on the disease and beat it at its own game. But the conclusion of Happy Ending is that there are different coping strategies and different outcomes – no right or wrong way to face and fight cancer – and sometimes we have to make our own choices. We may share those choices with those who care for us or we may choose not to. I say "we", as it is easy to identify with the four brave women on stage, who each embody different ways of coping and many of us have faced (or will face) their choices.
But Happy Ending is of course is a musical show and although Anat Gov’s story explores the issues from the inside (she died from cancer in 2012), she manages to be funny and uplifting en route for the "happy ending" she writes for her central character actress and minor celebrity Carrie Evans, newly diagnosed with the disease (a delicate and detailed performance from Gillian Kirkpatrick).
There are some original and unexpected dance routines – drip stands make elegant partners – there’s a Gospel chorus and even cancer itself is embodied by an attractive young man (Joe McCourt) in a steamy tango. There are killer lines too (yes, the gallows humour is catching): “There’s nothing like the smell of fresh cancer in the morning," says one patient, old hand Silvia (played by the excellent and feisty Andrea Miller). She has been fighting cancer with every treatment possible for so long that she is almost like the top dog in a prison drama (or the block elder in a camp). This lady is a survivor of Auschwitz, so how can she let cancer get the better of her?
Silvia is one of the other three women who embody different ways of coping with their cancer. Miki (the bouncy and attractive Karen Archer) is an ex-hippy who has found so many positives in her diagnosis that she almost has a new lease of life. For a start it has led to a reconciliation with the estranged daughter she neglected during her days of tuning in, turning on and dropping out. Then there’s the devout young Orthodox mother of many, Sarah (Thea Beyleveld, both touching and convincing in her fervour) who trusts in her faith in God to get her through – though she does not trust her yeshiva student husband to look after the children and the plumbing at home.
Yes they are types, but they turn in great performances, as do the supporting (literally) cast of nurses and doctors, led by cheery dedicated nurse Fiona Jodie Jacobs (perfectly channelling a type I recognise from my own recent spell in hospital) and hunky Dr Lynch (Oliver Stoney), the alpha male medic who might have stepped out of any TV hospital drama – cold and caring at the same time.
Director Guy Retallack and Hilla Bar, who adapted the story from Hebrew, have relocated the drama from Israel to North London with the odd mention of, for example, Parliament Hill. Shlomi Shaban and Michal Solomon provide songs that are more stand-out moments of exploring Gov’s theme than the score of a musical moving along the plot or illuminating the characters.
By Judi Herman
Happy Ending runs until Saturday 7 March. 7.30pm (also 3pm Wed/Sat). £12-£19. Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin St, E8 3DL; 020 7503 1646. www.arcolatheatre.com