Victoria Firth - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the third week of rehearsals for Happy Days, directed by Sarah Frankcom



It strikes me that this play is about a 3 way relationship – a woman, a man and the landscape. The environment is unforgettably present and unusually it’s not about us making marks on the earth but beyond a tipping point to where the earth now makes, marks on us. The consequences and interdependence of this situation is the body of the drama and the relationship. Who is keeping who alive and in place? Who is witnessing who? Her body is part gone – she wants to keep moving and be seen. He has freedoms but doesn’t leave and is out of sight and reach. She wears the earth, the earth wears him. The world rotates.

It’s interesting how your perspective recalibrates. Initially it appears that nothing much happens in this play but once you find its orbit, when your world closes down into the time and space of the play there is so much drama, so much emotion.


In going through the play Sarah is working with the actors on the interpretation and delivery of their lines, the development of their characters, the physicality of their performance and movements and their interactions with each other. This is a very detailed process. She may work with the actors on a paragraph of text several times before moving on. Each time asking them to try expressing it in a slightly different tone, mood or emotion or with different timing. Sometimes she tells anecdotes of people she knows or situations she’s seen to illustrate and relate the piece to real lives. Do you know anyone like that? My neighbour sometimes does this etc.

After all the options are explored a shared approach is agreed and then the process is repeated for the next section. It is a mining of the text. This is a particularly dense piece but I would imagine the essence of her approach translates to other works.

I am particularly struck by how the director and actors are able to reverse engineer the world of the characters from the text on the page. By interrogating the phrases, pauses and repetitions they are able to deduce elements of personality and plot.

In this case they are often exploring the mental health distortions caused by characters coping with the un-copeable: magical thinking, superstitions, filling up time, distracting oneself, avoiding triggers, remembering things that help and trying not to remember those that don’t, controlling daily routines – all are uncovered.

Sometimes Sarah explores a symbolic interpretation – what bigger resonance does this phrase or situation have? The writer has chosen everything for a reason.

Image of HAPPY DAYS, Royal Exchange Theatre


Atri Banerjee, the Assistant Director, is very active in rehearsals. Often working with the actors alone at the beginning or end of the session. He is reinforcing the decisions of the day and walking with the actors over the paths the characters take to tread a deeper imprint. He is also helping with the mammoth task of learning the lines. He finds balance between letting them run sections and find their flow and stopping them where there is an error. He is catching significant deviations so that the actors don’t need to unlearn any mistakes. When they are running text he works with the DSM to mark any bits of text that are ‘sticky’ so that the actors know the sections that they need to give more attention to.

I also get to observe Movement Director, Vicki Manderson, working with the company. At first I am not sure what the role of a movement director will be, as the actors can’t move very much, but she has an extraordinary vision of the detail. She asks questions of how living in compact situations would affect the movements of a character -how repetition would. She brings their attention to the detail of everyday tasks often taken for granted and interrogates them - if you’re reading the paper does your head move as you read - or your eyes?

She also has an approach to gently sculpting the performance which echoes Sarah’s. When the actors make a suggestion it is completely acknowledged with ‘that’s one option- let’s try this way as well’. I have often wondered how, when working with professional actors, their opinion and the director’s come together but in this atmosphere of experimenting it seems easy. The actor’s first ideas and instincts are incorporated in an exploration where the director – whichever one it is – can then add their suggestion and then after embodying the options the director calls it and the shared direction is found.

Happy Days runs 25 May - 23 June 2018, Theatre

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