I Want To Be Happy

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

18/08/2023 - 02/09/2023

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

06/09/2023 - 30/09/2023

Production Details

Written by Carl Bland
Director Carl Bland & Ben Crowder

Presented by Nightsong

After all these years talking to each other and not understanding a word. Something slipped through. Something beyond words. Something from one heart to another’

Binka is a guinea pig in a laboratory cage. Paul is the lab assistant who looks after her. Neither understand each other. Yet everyday they share their hopes and fears. Binka wants to escape. Paul wants to get the love of his life back. Both just want to be happy again.

But how? When everything you’ve known is gone and you’re left with a broken heart? Sometimes the greatest gift you can give the person you love, is to set them free.

Humour and pathos collide in I Want To Be Happy, created by Nightsong (Mr Red Light, Te Pō, The Worm) supported by Auckland Live and starring theatre greats Jennifer Ludlam and Joel Tobeck.

Venue: Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre
Dates: 18 August – 2 September 2023
Times: Tue & Wed 6.30pm, Thu – Sat 7.30pm, Sun 4pm
Booking: https://www.aucklandlive.co.nz/show/i-want-to-be-happy

Venue: Circa Theatre
Dates: 6 – 30 September 2023
Time: Tues – Thurs 6.30pm, Fri – Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm
Booking: at circa.co.nz from 13 July

Cast: Jennifer Ludlam, Joel Tobeck, Milo Cawthorne
Lighting designer: Sean Lynch
Set designer: Andrew Foster
Composer: John Gibson
Costume designer: Elizabeth Whiting

Theatre ,

70 minutes

Leaves its audience very happy at having engaged with another Nightsong treasure

Review by John Smythe 08th Sep 2023

Playwright Carl Bland and his co-director Ben Crowder have done it again with a Nightsong production that proves the exceptional value of a live theatre experience.

Andrew Foster’s set design for I Want to be Happy fills the Circa One stage with plenty to contemplate, preshow. Dominant is a large metal frame with a mirrored back wall and a wooden box connected stage right, dotted with circular ventilation holes. Stage left (audience right), on a standalone trolley, we see the back view of a much smaller metal box with an even smaller wooden box connected to its side. They mirror each other except for their difference in size. The stage left wall is also mirrored. As for the majestic upstage wooden wall … anyone familiar with Nightsong productions will not be surprised to learn there will be surprises.

How, then, may I proceed without committing spoilers? I can reveal we are observing activities in a laboratory where a scientist called Paul is observing a captive guinea pig called Binka who in turn observes Paul – and we become captive to both of them and their relationships.

The inquisitive face that sniffs us out through a breathing hole belongs to Binka. She emerges into the big metal box with the transparent front and Paul arrives in the biggest box (the lab) to observe her in the small metal box. They talk to each other but not with each other; they speak their thoughts and feelings, and maybe think they are sharing them, but they don’t understand each other’s language. We, however, understand them both.

Jennifer Ludlam – quite humanoid in a fur coat and big hair – exquisitely inhabits Binka’s solitary existence and draws us into her simple world view. Her immediate needs are for food and water but she does have memories of siblings, and dreams of the Andes (whence her species originated). More animated than Eva, the sad old trolley lady she brought us in Mr Red Light, and less emotionally complex than Jen, the actress whose turmoil she embodied in Call it a Night – both Nightsong productions – Ludlam distils Binka’s plight simply by being. It will be a stony heart indeed that does not melt in empathy.

Having met complex challenges in Nightsong’s A Stab in the Dark, Joel Tobeck also distils Paul’s being in a way that compels our empathy. We learn very quickly that his relationship with wife Sarah is on the rocks. While he uses Binka as his confidant, he maintains an objective clinical relationship with her – which in some respects engenders a similar relationship between us and Paul. We note his behaviour and believe it but, inevitably, we judge it too.

When it comes to their talking, they talk past each other. But the idea that communication occurs in other dimensions, sometimes beyond our consciousness, is subtly yet emphatically infused into the play.

I do need to mention that Binka is part of a breeding programme and that ‘true love’ – that ineffable chemical attraction that cannot be explained – arrives for Binka in the form of a furry mate she dubs ‘MyOne’. Initially she feels the same way towards another, called Whistler, until the flipside takes over.

Spoken language and facial expressions are not available in these large, furry, ovoid male guinea pigs, wonderfully realised by The Costume Studio. Great appreciation is therefore due to Milo Cawthorn (also a puppeteer in A Stab in the Dark) for giving them individual characteristics (as one does with larval masks).

I’ll say no more about what transpires with Binka’s mates except to say they involve emotional experiences that are both joyous and traumatic. The eloquence of the non-verbal communication in these moments is powerful.  

Regarding the aforementioned surprises built into the set, you have to be there. Suffice to say the state of imprisonment – physical, psychological and emotional – is dramatically offset with bursts of freedom. There is as much delight to be had in the stage craft as in engaging with the humanity and humour inherent in the story.  

Unseen in person is Stage Manager Amanda Joe, whose contributions to the onstage action are exemplary. Lighting Designer Sean Lynch must be applauded as much for the density of the blackouts as the appropriateness of his illuminations – deftly operated, along with infusions of John Gibson’s poignant music – by Niamh Campbell-Ward. And Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes are ideal.

If there is a common thread in Bland’s plays, it is – as I have noted before – the eternal quest for love, happiness and a sense of meaningful existence. This pursuit always generates comedy of a life-affirming kind and here it is perfectly pitched.

The question is posed: “Did something beyond words get through?” It did – and does. I Want to be Happy leaves its audience very happy at having engaged with another Nightsong treasure and with quite a lot to ponder on.


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A transformative experience, a total delight, undeniably emotionally moving, gut-wrenchingly funny

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 02nd Sep 2023

On the surface, I Want to be Happy is the simple story of a guinea pig and a laboratory researcher.

It’s not, of course, it’s written by Carl Bland so it’s much more.

Paul (Joel Tobeck) is doing ‘research’ on Binka the guinea pig (we don’t find out what this involves) while going through a difficult relationship break up with his partner Sarah who we never meet. Binka the guinea pig (Jennifer Ludlam) is caged and aching for her freedom. They talk, seemingly to each other, but neither hears and the deliciously structured text hangs in the air to be received, and interpreted, by an almost full house enjoying a lovely spring evening at Auckland’s Herald Theatre.

Each and every day, the man and the guinea pig share their hopes and fears, and both just want to be happy again – which implies that they’re not but that they once were. Paul’s certainly not happy and we guess (probably from personal experience) that Sarah is playing ‘the beast with two backs’ away from home but Paul hasn’t quite got to this bit yet.

Maybe we’re wrong, truth is, we just don’t know. The whole evening is like that, so much to know, so much to find out, a wonderfully joyous exercise in anticipation.

The good news is, somehow, we know there is always hope.

Paul tells us ‘we find that, after all these years of talking to each other and not understanding a word, that something has slipped through, something beyond words, something from one heart to another. But how? When everything you’ve known is gone and you’re left with a broken heart? Sometimes the greatest gift you can give the person you love, is to set them free.’

Of course, there are issues with setting Binka free (she’s a cunning wee beast and can chew her way through most things), and the outside world has some serious challenges if you’re smaller than a sand shoe. The bonus for the audience is some very funny scenes that border on traditional pantomime or classic British farce.

Enough about that though, you didn’t hear it from me.

There’s a bittersweet quality throughout the evening, however, that just won’t go away largely because, as the website warns, ‘humour and pathos collide’ much to our delight.

In the case of I Want to be Happy, collide is an understatement.

Perhaps the answer lies in a 7 February 2015 NZ Herald interview where Bland suggests “there’s lots of examples of serious people being funny. The old tragedy, comedy thing. It’s a very fine line. All great comedians have a sadness in them.”

Wise words, and I have to say Ludlam and Tobeck are perfect casting if this is true (and we all know it is).

The writer’s note in the programme cites the opening line of the play and perhaps this gives us another hint as to why a bleak sense of foreboding prevails. The note reads “this morning I woke up and a memory came flooding back. It was heartbeats. Fur. Wet noses. Warm milk. The smell of love. The memory was a happy one. But it made me unhappy.” It goes on to say “the memory of a past love is bittersweet. You know you can never have that moment again. The pain of that loss can stop us from celebrating the beauty of that love. Animals are our guide here. Their ability to live in the present. To endure. Be ever hopeful. To tap into a deep ancestral presence. To teach us. What we thought was lost is not. All the people we love are by our side. The show is dedicated to Peta Rutter.”

Blessings, Carl. Deeply personal.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Bland’s playwrighting work over the years to hear that I Want to be Happy is not quite as simple as a guinea pig and a researcher talking to each other but not connecting, and that there are more layers to this work than you’ll find on the proverbial onion.

Bland trained at The Chelsea School of Art and The Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He wrote and created his own theatre shows with his late wife, the wonderful Peta Rutter, under the name Nightsong Productions before collaborating with Ben Crowder’s Theatre Stampede.

Like Bland, director Ben Crowder has history, and it’s all outstanding. I’ve borrowed the following from the Nightsong website, but first I’ll come clean and admit that Crowder is a director whose work I truly respect. “He trained at The John Bolton Theatre School in Melbourne and, after graduating, established Theatre Stampede with Vanessa Chapple. Together they created a range of works including The Young Baron, Blossom and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In 2005 Ben began collaborating with Bland and Peta Rutter from Nightsong and together they made Head and 360 – a theatre of recollections.

“Bland and Crowder have continued to work together, officially forming this iteration of Nightsong in 2017. Their collaborations include Te Pō, Spirit House, Mr Red Light and Call it a Night. They are currently developing A Stab in the Dark together. Ben has also worked extensively as a freelance director and creator.”

The website clarifies the kaupapa further by telling us that Bland and Crowther are “risk-takers” whose work “pushes boundaries”.

Who could argue, I Want to be Happy certainly ticks both of those boxes.

The Nightsong website goes on to say “we deliver unique and innovative New Zealand theatre with high production values. Our works mix rich poetic language with music, visual arts, puppetry, illusion, and choreographed movement.”

More boxes ticked, and majestically so.

In conclusion we learn that Bland and Crowder “possess a deep love and passion for the theatre art form and believe that theatre should be a transformative experience” where audiences “at least see the possibility that the world around them is not always as it seems.”

Having just experienced a metaphysical play about a talking guinea pig, I doubt anyone could dispute this claim, certainly not me. I Want to be Happy is a transformative experience that I found a total delight.

I Want to be Happy is also deeply challenging for this reviewer because to talk about the arc of the play is to give too much away – spoiler after spoiler after spoiler in fact – and each unexpected moment is fantastic. Surprise is such a powerful comic tool and there are surprises aplenty in the ninety-minute journey of this production because, in a play about a talking guinea pig, the sky’s the limit, anything goes, and this company makes every post a winner in the madcap race to the end.

If you intend to invest in this excellent piece of work then perhaps stop reading now, because I might just slip up and unintentionally pop in one of these precious treasures that Bland’s plot and charming characters delight in. I may, in fact, have already gone too far.

The whole is a wonderfully complete piece of work with a set to die for (Andrew Foster), fantastical costumes that are jaw-droppingly good (Elizabeth Whiting and Phil Gregory) and an existential ‘look-between-the-lines’ script that cannot be denied. Bland’s writing is ever clever, like a honed scalpel at times, at others as tart as lemon sorbet, and always optimistic. It’s as though Sir Tom Stoppard is in the room, and I love Sir Tom, but Bland is Bland and absolutely the equal, on this night at least, of the great man.

Now if all this isn’t enough for you (and it should be) there’s also the sublime Jennifer Ludlam playing Binka as seriously as though she’s Kate from the Shrew, the always impressive Joel Tobeck channelling his own Malvolio, and Crowder’s outstanding, if always elusive, direction. I’ve been a fan of Crowder, the costume design genius of Elizabeth Whiting, and the compositions of John Gibson seemingly forever. Gibson’s solo piano in I Want to be Happy could hold its own in any piano bar in any major city anywhere in the world. It’s simply stunning. It supports and sustains the action (both inner and outer) and is quite magnificent, while cleverly pretending not to be.

While the publicity is all over social media (great work, Elephant) what it doesn’t tell you is that, while the production is undeniably emotionally moving, it’s also gut-wrenchingly funny. Paul is in the process of breaking up with his Sarah and he’s doing everything predictably wrong. His character arc is so recognisable and so, so funny. Like kids laughing at clowns, we take a bizarre joy from his ignorance and pain. Binka, on the other hand, finds herself happily in the breeding programme – but that’s quite enough about that. Suffice to say none of it ends well, and thereby hangs a very happy tale.

The characters are beautifully drawn but the script for actors, I suspect, could be extremely challenging. Not that’s there’s any evidence of this, and it’s certainly not challenging for the audience, we love it and we get it, but for actors playing characters who seem to be communicating but aren’t, the text provides segues that are hilarious for us but may have been complex to learn.

The quirky love Paul and Binka have for each other – man for guinea pig, guinea pig for man – is at the heart of the work. It’s delicately played, and I find it, personally, moving. Been there, done that, perhaps. It’s also because each of the creatives involved is acutely aware that everything in the work happens on two levels: the obvious – a giant, guinea pig, and a human lab mate – but also the metaphysical, where human relationships are mirrored and sublime metaphors played out in ways that enable the whole experience to be a satisfying, if somewhat bizarre, inter-species philosophy fest.

Quite superb. Quite, quite superb.

Ludlam’s Binka is wonderful. Yes, she creates all the physiological and facial quirks that you might expect a guinea pig to have but, almost against all logic, her idiosyncrasies and her predicament are what makes us fall in love with her. Hers is an intensely physical performance and I admire it hugely. Scuffling around on the floor of the Herald stage presents its own complexities, but for one of our most skilled and experienced performers, Ludlam embodies the character splendidly.

It’s fair to say that we’re all most used to seeing Joel Tobeck on our screens and often in roles of a heroic nature so Paul is quite a major change. There’s not much heroic about Paul as he struggles through the break-up of his relationship making all the standard mistakes, but like Ludlam, we join him in his world and feel deeply for him as he drags himself kicking and screaming (not literally) to a realization that he really must let Sarah go. Tobeck’s versatility is on full show, and it’s admirable in the extreme.

The programme names, one additional actor, Milo Cawthorne, who, until the curtain call, we never really see. Well, we see him, but he’s always completely encased in Elizabeth Whiting‘s incredible costumes – one for MyOne and one for Whistler. Cawthorne’s two characters are polar opposites, and his performance of them is all the more effective because we instantly love one and are terrified of the other. Excellent work all round from Cawthorne who communicates effectively (and manages the challenges presented by his costumes) with real skill.

I’ve long been a fan of the key Nightsong players. Bland is a wonderful writer and Crowder a magnificent director, Whiting’s costumes are always memorable, and Gibson’s music has given me immense pleasure over the years. Ludlam and Tobeck meld seamlessly into the work and deliver Bland’s script through imaginative storytelling and add the inevitable clever physicality that is always a hallmark of Crowders work.

Did I have a good night at the theatre? I certainly did. Nightsong and Auckland Live have found a balance that is quirky and charming and genuinely meaningful. I especially liked the committed maturity brought to the piece by experienced performers in tune with their material and totally on the top of their game. I am reminded every minute it takes the story to unfold, that Ludlam is among our subtlest and most nuanced performers and Tobeck is her equal. I find myself sitting in the comforting dark and cherishing the collective decades of fine work that these artists have given us and the undoubted personal cost involved. I find myself hoping against hope that Nightsong receives the funding and support they so thoroughly deserve and that this leads to the over-full houses that their work truly warrants.

In conclusion, I wish to humbly compliment myself because I believe I have avoided almost all of the spoilers that I so desperately want to talk about. Suffice to say that if you choose to invest your dollars attending I Want to be Happy, you will not be disappointed. There’s so much more to it than I have told you, but my lips are sealed. If its belly laughs you want, or to have your emotions massaged, or even your demons assuaged, you can have it all because I Want to be Happy is the real deal. It’s wonderful theatre, and just right for an early spring evening.

Auckland audiences have another opportunity to enjoy this excellent work before the show travels south and packs into Circa Theatre in Wellington.

Enjoy this taonga, it’s terrific work.


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