Review: Stay Happy Keep Smiling @ 53Two, Manchester

On May 22, 2013, British Army soldier Lee Rigby was attacked and killed in Woolwich, southeast London in a brutal act of terrorism.

Written by award-winning playwright Anna Jordan, Stay Happy Keep Smiling is a fictional exploration of how the incident affected the lives of six people who witnessed the murder first-hand: Rita, Tony, Elliot, Farrah, Annie and Stefan.

Located in Deansgate, 53Two is a relatively new venue which opened in 2016. It is a small theatre with a stage that nestles comfortably under a railway arch. The occasional rumble of trains gives the set – which is split into a street, a house and a hospital waiting room – an authentic feel.

As the audience walks into the performing area the cast, dressed in clothes which match the 21st century narrative, are already on stage.

The story begins with the characters recounting how their day-to-day habits have changed since they day they witnessed the brutal encounter. Whilst Tony counts his wife’s breaths, Annie numbs the memory of the attack with alcohol. Stefan simply feels nothing.

As the play continues we see snippets of the lives of the six protagonists. It is clear that each individual has been affected by the events in a different way, yet all their lives have been changed irrevocably.

Jordan, who has presented her work at venues nationally and internationally – including the Royal Exchange in Manchester – uses a punchy narrative which raises difficult questions and gives intensely truthful answers throughout the performance.

One particular issue she examines is how people’s attitudes to terror attacks change after witnessing them first-hand in their own country.

During the play Rita, who is struggling to connect with her son, admits that when terrorist attacks happen in Syria and the Middle East she pays them little attention as a way to deny their occurrence.

However, after seeing one unfold in person, Rita is forced to face the reality of the way such incidents can destroy families and change lives.

Drawing to a close, the play brings the characters back onto the stage and although each character has a different story we can see how they what they saw on that fateful day in May 2013 has undeniably rippled through their lives to leave a lasting effect.

The effect of this not only stays with the characters but with the audience members who are left pondering the issues Jordan has raised throughout the play. 

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